How Technology Hinders Workplace Productivity (and What Employers Can Do About It)

Technology offers us a myriad of psychological benefits. With its infinite abilities to constantly connect us with others, entertain us, inform us, and distract us, technology can fulfill virtually our every need. Each encounter with technology is positively reinforced: there is an immediate reward for engaging in this behavior, increasing our likelihood of doing it again.

But at what expense?

As one consequence of this behavior, many fear that this constant, tantalizing distraction will greatly hinder one’s productivity, particularly in the workplace.

They would be right.

Technological distractions are everywhere. Because we can use technology to seek exactly what it is that we want (be it entertainment, information, or connections to others), it will invariably be a more desirable option than the requirements bestowed upon us by others (read: work duties).

For instance, as an alternative to completing a work assignment, an employee may use his or her phone to text a partner or friend, use the internet to read the news or check sports scores, check or update social media pages, watch videos or listen to songs on various websites, and plenty more.

The options are limitless.

The first days of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March are widely believed to be among the least productive days across all employees. Technology has allowed us to not only keep tabs on the scores of those games, but also to watch them in real time. The sites making this possible have even included a “Boss Button” on the same page as the video feed. When clicked, the page instantly transforms into something that is vaguely productive-looking.

The fact that this button even exists is a testament to the understanding that, left to their own device, employees will often choose the distraction over the duty.

How does an employer circumvent this? What parameters can be put in place to increase the chances of productivity in the workplace and not succumb to the tempting distractions that are everywhere around us? Many employers will have internet restrictions in place so that common websites are blocked from one’s access. With cell phones being able to do basically as much as a computer can, however, this is largely ineffective.

Below are 3 ways that employers can increase employees’ productivity when it comes to technological distractions, without being punitive.

1.  SET STRICT BUT ATTAINABLE DEADLINES: Depending on the nature of the business, there may be open-ended deadlines for various projects to be completed. Or perhaps there are several different items being worked on simultaneously.

Whenever possible, limit the number of tasks on which one is concurrently working, and provide ambitious deadlines for completion. This will result in the employee recognizing that he or she does not have the opportunity for distraction because of an imminent deadline that must be reached. When faced with “crunch time,” most employees are able to put aside distractions temporarily to meet a deadline.

Be careful not to implement this strategy too often, however, as it can take on a flavor of being micromanaged.

2.  SET PRODUCTIVITY GOALS: Punishing an individual for not being productive, or putting childlike restrictions in place (such as blocking various website access), is not nearly as effective as rewarding someone who chooses to be productive. This reward need not, and indeed should not, be in the form of monetary compensation or other external benefit.

Instead, publicly (within your organization) recognize the individual(s) who attain a particular mark or reach a certain level of performance. As human beings, we can become accustomed to putting up with negative consequences of our actions (especially if those actions are at least providing short term rewards like entertainment and distraction). What we can’t do, at least not forever, is continue to thrive without feelings of accomplishment and some level of recognition for our positive performance and contribution.

Seeing others attain this motivates us to want to attain the same thing. If there are things in place within your organization to internally motivate people to perform to a certain level, it is more likely that individuals will choose the distractions less and work more toward being productive.

3.  RUN A CONTEST WITHIN YOUR OFFICE: We have all heard of the “game” dining patrons play whereby they each place their phone in the middle of the table and the first to touch theirs must foot the bill. There are also restaurants that will offer discounts to patrons for turning in their cell phone at the beginning of a meal.

Come up with ways to implement these practices in your office, especially if the use of a cell phone is not imperative to completing one’s work duties. Offer rewards or incentives to individuals for not using their phone throughout the day.

Remember, computers and internet access can be more tightly controlled than individuals’ phones. Getting an employee to give up his or her cell phone for some period of time will result in that individual having “nothing better to do” than work!

The harsh reality is that even the most well-intentioned employees will succumb to the temptation to check their e-mail, read the news, check a sports score, or watch an entertaining video (or 15) during work hours. Technology has made it possible for us to be constantly positively reinforced and rewarded for engaging in these distractions. The only way to “beat” technology is to set up environments in which it is more appealing to the individual to avoid technology than it would be to use it!

This is the third installment of the Psychological Effects of Technology series. Topics include how we have come to be so dependent on technology, the effects technology is having on us individually, the effects technology is having on our relationships with others, and what we can do about our reliance on technology. Help these conversations happen. Please post your comments and questions to my Facebook Fan Page or share this article on your own Facebook profile. Follow me and tweet at me on Twitter @Bevacqua_PhD, or simply print these articles and share them with loved ones. 

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