The Wall Street Journal published an article the other day about how workers get distracted (with the pithy title "Why You Won't Finish this Article" – but please finish this one because I've got some words on what to do about it). Their point is that there is a huge cost to businesses from lost focus ➔ lost productivity. With open office layouts, the never-ending barrage of emails, etc., it's true that getting real work done at work can be impossible. But it's not impossible to fix.

 

Productivity-killing interruptions are not new. Research group Basex has been tracking the effects of “information overload” for years. In 2010, distractions cost US corporations $997 billion dollars in lost productivity. This is up 11% in 2 years, from $900 billion in 2008. So what? The odds are that your company is losing out on millions of dollars you could be putting to better use every year.

 

We all like to point the finger at email and phone calls and IMs and meetings. But, the mediums we blame are only part of the problem. These channels are indeed flawed: someone else gets to decide when it’s OK to interrupt your flow. And, we’ve built up social obligations around prompt responses and it feels like we always have to be connected or we’re not doing the job. (Setting aside whether that’s the most important job…) But the other big problem is that these channels have been overloaded, without the tools to efficiently hone and process the flood of inputs.

 

Think just about email for a moment. Email is the lowest common denominator: everyone has it, so it gets used for everything, from critical to ignorable. Email is actually a fine tool for some of those conversations, but it’s entirely the wrong tool:

  • for bigger discussions (has anyone not been on an “unsubscribe me” flurry or reply-alls, or missed half the conversation that got dropped in replies before we got added to the To line?)
  • for driving strategic alignment (where understanding whether and how the message is received is critical)
  • for real collaboration (because emailing around different versions of files in parallel works so well)
  • for accountability and visibility on actions required (you asked someone to get it done, but did he?)

Phone calls, chats, meetings, and even the increasingly ubiquitous activity streams as businesses rush to add social-for-the-sake-of-social all have their place, but when misused they all have similar problems.

 

Businesses who want to lead – both in offering more to and getting more from their people – are taking a stand. Some are even banning email internally on the principle that sometimes you have to take a radical stance to change behavior even a small amount. When people are drowning in the firehose, use extreme measures! But don't don't lock up email and throw away the keys just yet! There is a better way.

 

Give people the right tools for the job. They need to be able to connect and communicate, effectively and efficiently, engaging when it makes most sense for them.

  1. Step 1: give people control over what they have to consume and process. This is where mailing lists and the firehose streams of activity fail: you have to bear the noise to get the critical nuggets. (This is why Jive has made it easy to zero in on just what Matters Most.)
  2. Once you get to the right set of inputs, make information consumption and processing faster, with different work styles in mind. Visual learners struggle with traditional email views but can blaze through their queues with more visually rich displays and inline actions; other people are lightning fast without ever touching their mouse.
  3. Everything isn't equally urgent or important. The sender get to pick the channel and associated urgency – and I bet we all know someone who marks every single email as High Priority – but the recipient gets little say. For the best people (the ones everyone wants to consult), this is the direct path to constant interruptions and lost productivity (and ultimately less satisfaction).
  4. The right context can also make communication dramatically more effective at driving smarter decisions, faster. Great communicators frame the conversation naturally, but it takes time. Everyone in your company should have the benefit of knowing the goal ("what are we trying to achieve here?") and who they’re engaging with, no matter whether they’re working in Outlook, on mobile, in the web... But most tools don't provide a complete picture: customer information is in your CRM, meeting notes are locked away who-knows-where, past conversations with the customer might have been in email, and you might be tracking tasks in another app entirely. Assuming they can even remember all those passwords, people won't – and shouldn't have to – search application after application to gather the data through sheer brute force every time they engage.

 

If you aren't convinced yet that you have a problem, and there is in fact a better way, start doing the math for your business. The impact adds up to real dollars. A recent study by McKinsey found that knowledge workers waste up to 28 hours per week processing emails, connecting with colleagues, and searching for information in the bowels of their company. What would you do if everyone in your company had a whole extra work day every week? Would you innovate more? Cut costs? Deliver faster?...

 

I encourage you to take a look around your office, at the distractions affecting every employee every 3 minutes (per the WSJ). If the tools you’re offering your employees and extended network of customers and partners are contributing to the distractions and hurting productivity and outcomes, seek out a better way. With Jive, or with anything that truly solves the problem instead of adding to it. It doesn’t have to mean banning email and changing the hard wiring on worker behavior: you can augment your existing tools and workflows to make all communication and collaboration more effective, for your entire business. Ultimately the tools are just the means to the end, so don’t let them get in your way.