Distractions Part Two – February 9, 2007

Distractions part two

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 27 – February 9, 2007

In response to the last Future’s Ramblings I received an e mail from a colleague who pointed out that iPods are the least of our worries when it comes to workplace distraction. Of course he is right, and he would have been right even if he wasn’t from the Melbourne office; that as you all know, has been living through an office renovation that took longer than anyone imagined. Who could keep focused with loud saws, paint fumes and construction workers in shorts? Never mind poor guys like Lorenzo who has been skipping lunch for the past six months out of fear he might gain a few pounds and not be able to squeeze through the one foot aisle leading to his desk.

We are all rejoicing because the Melbourne office renovation is complete and it looks great!  Now we can get back to normal, a relief not only to the occupants of the Melbourne office, but also for those of us that talk to them on the phone. Working without distraction is necessary in the workplace. The Journal of Facilities Management  conducted a study in the US in 2002 and found that the workplace attribute found to be most effective was the “ability to do distraction – free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)”. Now with the construction complete all we need to do is worry about all of the other distractions.

When it comes to distractions the most explored subject area is around acoustical privacy. In studies done by ASID 70% of the respondents claimed they could be more productive if the workplace was less noisy. Noise level is something that can be easily measured in the workplace but it is not the noise that is the issue as much as how annoying that noise is. Annoyance levels fluctuate with sound level, but also are impacted by predictability and variability. Spikes in variable noise can be annoying but less so when they are expected. This is why the guy that presses the button on the printer does not get as annoyed with the sound as the guy sitting next to him who didn’t anticipate it.

Visual privacy is also important in work environments but visual distractions are different from auditory distractions because they elicit a different response from the brain. It is more difficult to return to ones thoughts after a visual distraction than an auditory one because the mechanism that helps re-orient task relevant information in the brain does not engage; making visual distractions more harmful to our productivity. Boy there are so many visual distractions that confront us each day! In the futures pod alone we can lose a good thirty minutes of work if someone has a new outfit or haircut.

Clothing or the lack there of, can be quite a distraction in the workplace. This is why I will share with you David M Kruk’s feelings on what people wear to work. In his article “The Corporate Dress Code” he identifies the clothing that is not suitable for the corporate environment because it is too distracting.

  • Sweat suites of any type – Sorry Sean I know you wanted to wear your orange track suit and diamond necklace from the Christmas Party again.
  • Clothes that are transparent or any part of an undergarment
  • Lack of proper undergarments
  • Unsafe footwear and flip – flops
  • Halter tops, bare midriffs, crop tops, tank tops – There goes my plan of wearing my Christmas Party outfit too, $20 down the drain! Good news for all of you that appeared in a wig at the party, they’re not on the list.
  • Low-cut clothing, thin shoulder straps, sundresses

Mr. Kruck makes exceptions if you are good looking, which is of course subjective. He also suggests that many of theses outfits should not even be worn outside of the workplace, particularly if you weigh more than 150 pounds. I should point out the source for this is Red Tractor USA touted as The Best News Satire in the Field. David has apparently not heard that the world is changing and that people wear jeans to the theater and camisoles to church. Jamie Oliver did not wear a tie when he visited The Queen and the NorthwesternUniversity women’s lacrosse team went to the White House in flip – flops.

Sorry I got distracted; there are so many interesting things you can find on the internet!

Draught is rated as the most annoying climatic factor in a work environment. This is characterized by varying air velocity and turbulence intensity. One third of employees in large offices complain about draught, this can reach 60% in a cold workplace. Environmental quality has been linked to productivity in offices, studies done by The University of Sydney measured occupant satisfaction with seven comfort factors and found that these had a direct  impact on performance at work – they measured: thermal comfort, air quality, activity related noise, spatial comfort, privacy, lighting and building related external noise.

So big deal, we all know that noise, visual and climatic factors can be distracting, we experience this daily, but why and what do we do about it?

To perform well at work, or in anything else, we need three things; first the knowledge, skills or abilities, second the motivation or desire, and third positive psychological factors. It is the psychological factors that give us a tough time because these impact our ability to concentrate and focus. There is no doubt that some people are able to control their attention, even in times of great stress, while others like Leyton Hewett cannot. This is psychological factors at play.

According to Robin Pratt from Performance Equations, Inc. our focus or concentration works in channels which range from external to internal and broad to narrow. There are three attentional channels that each of us moves through at any point in any given day.  The first channel is External and broad – which is about environmental awareness, concentration on the things happening around you. The second channel is broad and internal – a more analytical, conceptual style. Focusing on process, this style connects past information with the future and is good for planning and strategy. The final channel is narrow and external – this channel will focus on follow through and execution of tasks.

We use all three channels as needed; the catch is that we cannot be in two channels at the same time. Each of us has a different pattern of attentional strength and weaknesses and we differ in how quickly we are able to switch styles. The higher your distraction level, the more difficulty you have of switching channels and it is the ability to switch quickly that makes you productive. For example if I am happily concentrating in Channel two, perhaps  working on a spread sheet or reading something and suddenly an ambulance goes by my brain sifts to Channel one, external broad awareness. My effectiveness and the level of my productivity will depend on my ability to quickly shift back to Channel two. Some people are just faster channel shifters than others.

We each have a dominant attention style and if we are lucky we will choose professions that align with that style, I think we can all agree that we want an air traffic controller or brain surgeon to maintain a strong internal – narrow focus. Each of these dominant attention styles will have a different reaction to stress or distraction; therefore, a person’s attention style can be influenced by the type of environment they are in. As a result when someone says they cannot possibly do their job in an open office environment; depending on which attention channel is dominant for them, it may be true.

Someone like me has broad – internal focus this is good because it allows me to analyses and synthesizes input from various sources. I am able to conceptualize relationships among events, so I can easily develop strategies or plans and anticipate the consequences. My approach is conceptual and I like solving problems. On the other hand because I am broad, I have difficulty with focused concentration. Staying on topic long enough to take care of the details and finish something is a challenge for me. I am seduced by a new idea or project more than finishing the old one. Unfortunately I also have high external distractibility.

External distractibility falls into three types: the first is due to boredom, you would rather pay attention to things you find more interesting than the task at hand. The second is due to irritation, you get distracted because you’re irritated at someone talking or the phone is ringing. Finally the third type of external distraction is from feeling rushed; you’re so distracted by all the things you have to do that you cannot pay attention to what you are doing at the moment.

We can’t change who we are, but we can learn to deal better with our weaknesses by altering our environment and surrounding ourselves with a team of people with complementary skills. If you have a high level of external distractibility you may need to put yourself in an environment where there are fewer distractions, like the quiet room for certain tasks. If you have a high level of internal distractibility, you get lost in your own head, it may be best to team with others who can help you to see a broader perspective. If your dominant channel is broad you may need to learn to slow down, learn to not overload your agenda, keep notes to maintain focus and team with more focused individuals who will keep you on target to get the job done.

Finally, at a business level here are a few thing employers can do to help:

  • Be more flexible – allow time outside of work for people to deal with their family issues
  • Provide an employee assistance program – to resolve personal problems relating to health, financial situation or family
  • Install acoustic products that absorb office noise – sound masking
  • Institute a work – safety program – disaster plans, fire safety procedures
  • Control the rumor mill – be honest with employees about the company, its financial situation and their future.



“Removing Employee Distractions”

Business Toolbox – A library of business management info.

By Vicki Gerson

October 2, 2004

Paper – “Environmental Quality and Productivity in Offices: Some Local Research”

David Rowe – School of Architecture, Design Science and Planning

The University of Sydney.

Paper – “Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.”

Justin Mardex – CornellUniversity, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis


“The Corporate Dress Code”

By David M. Kruk

Red Tractor USA – June 13, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe on office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

Paper – “The Psychology of Distributed Workers”

Robin Pratt

July 2003

Future of Work Executive Roundtable

The Attentional & Interpersonal Style Inventory

TAIS Business Report for Laurie Aznavoorian

October 2, 2003

Enhanced Performance Systems Inc





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