Much has been written about the growing problem of the distracted employee who does not complete tasks in a time-effective or focused manner.

There are number of societal and workplace cultural factors at play, and the “problem” of employee distraction can also be reframed as an opportunity to improve employee engagement. For starters, let’s examine some of the reasons people get distracted in the workplace.

People get distracted because they feel bored, they feel disengaged…and often because internal workflow processes are cumbersome, burdensome, outdated, restrictive, inflexible, or otherwise simply do not fit the context they were designed for. They get distracted because their job requires too much multi-tasking, or because they are working longer hours and have external life concerns pressing on them.

Many are under-employed or focusing their time on tasks that others could do far more cost-effectively. Here are some tips for helping employees to sharpen their focus, and for using tech tool to reach performance and output goals.

Encourage them to “eat the frog”

Mark Twain famously said, “eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.”

No matter how hard we try to distribute workloads so that our employees are focused on doing what they enjoy doing more often than not, at best we will only arrive at 80-90% (in a good environment). This means that 10-20% of the time, employees will necessarily be engaged in tasks that make them feel physically or emotionally drained.

These are your “eat the frog” tasks – and they different for every individual. Helping employees frame them this way brings a little levity to the situation – and research shows that people are less anxious and distracted when they get their frog-eating out of the way as the first task. They can then get down to the serious business of enjoying what they do for you.

Use process automation software to streamline work

It is highly likely that your employees are accessing some forms of software packages for e-mail, instant messaging, cloud sharing, calendars, to-do list, mind mapping, and other applications they can access from their desktop or phone. Many of these programs have built-in features that allow for prioritization of work.

More sophisticated versions of project management software, can even replicate high-level scheduling and work prioritization. There are also tools that replicate tasks specific to certain industries. There’s different software tools for invoicing, email marketing, data recovery and just about every other tedious task you can think of.

You should implement these if you have the bandwith. Your employees will be thankful.

Let them design the workflow

Many employees struggle with navigating business processes and systems that were designed for them to use – by someone who never did their job. Worse, they were not consulted in the design, or they inherited the system, or the process once worked but outlived its usefulness in its current form.

Tap into your greatest resource, and let your employees help you identify what should be fixed, and be part of the think tank that fixes it.

Let them switch between tasks to reduce fatigue

Mental, physical, and emotional fatigue are serious issues related to employee disengagement, stress, and burnout. There is evidence from the field of psychology that suggests that deliberate switching of tasks at a set time interval is a far superior strategy to randomly switching back and forth.

Your software platforms or other sophisticated tasklist apps can help you set intervals – 30 minutes on a critical report, 15 minutes to respond to urgent email, let phone go to voice and answer on the hour after a brief walk around the office. Then back to the report, and repeat until finished. Lacking an application, a phone alarm clock will suffice. Even better, if you have an employee assigned to a critical report, assign someone else to cover for them for their simpler tasks.

Otherwise, a person trying to write a report spends 2 minutes on the report, 5 minutes on a phone call, 15 minutes recovering their train of thought, 10 minutes on the report, 3 minutes on the phone, 10 minutes recovering train of thought, etc. Ask anyone who has ever written either a novel or a graduate thesis.

The first strategy may have the “disadvantage” of making people wait a half hour to have their phone call returned, but it will get returned. And the report will actually get written, too. Most importantly- the employee will feel in control of his or her situation and can calmly switch tasks, focusing on what is most important at the moment. Barring actual emergencies, which of course do happen, this is a far more productive strategy.

Let them have unstructured downtime

Employees are people, too. They need time to disengage, and recharge. Instead of policing internet usage for example, allow them to take a few minutes to watch a [suitable for work] video that will brighten their mood. Or take a walk with a camera. Or go to the gym at an odd hour. Or grab a cappuccino with their coworker to run an idea by them. You get the idea.

Unstructured downtime is not just good for business, it is good for human beings, too. Remember that employees only function well when they are healthy. Mental health matters for that, too. You need to give employees time to decompress to cut down on stress and anxiety, otherwise you lose them to mental health disability or another company.

Encourage employee collaboration

Allow employees to offer their expertise to others, and seek others to help think or work through something that is tricky stuck, innovative, boring, or otherwise perfectly suited to collaborative endeavors. Also ditch the “only work within your job description” mentality.

You might be surprised what someone whose hobby is photography, or video game design, or calligraphy- might contribute to your corporate culture and customer service. Providing good communication platforms for employees to find and share with each other is an instant productivity booster.

Encourage process feedback

Many times, something is not working for an employee – but the supervisor does not know about it because the employee does not feel encouraged to speak up about it. Or the supervisor does not communicate it to management. Or management does not take action, etc. Creating a culture conducive to process feedback is an effective way to improve employee focus – because those daily frustrations add up.

An employee is likely to continue giving his or her best if their concerns are listened to, acknowledged, and, most importantly, addressed. An easy way to facilitate this type of feedback is to build it into your business process management software function.

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