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How workplace distractions can actually boost productivity

Sharon Florentine | Jan. 8, 2016
Recent research from BambooHR shows that breaks, small talk and socializing in the workplace can actually help bolster productivity and employee engagement.

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What are your employees up to when they're not actively on task? Chances are, you're thinking they're surfing the Web, doing some online shopping or banking, or posting cat videos on Facebook. But research suggests that more "traditional" distractions, like trips to the break room, watercooler chat and trading gossip with their colleagues, are actually consuming more of workers' time -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

A recent study from human resources information systems company BambooHR conducted in October polled 1,005 U.S.-based full-time employees and found that traditional activities, like taking breaks to the office water cooler or the break room and participating in small talk, still reign supreme as the most time-consuming workplace distractions.

"We expected to find employees spending massive amounts of time on Facebook, texting and surfing the 'Net. We were surprised to find that the old standards were actually taking up more time. And we also realized that's not a bad thing," says Rusty Lindquist, vice president of insights and human capital management at BambooHR.

For some companies, these results would trigger management's natural inclination to stamp out these kinds of distractions in the name of greater productivity, Lindquist says, but doing so could actually have the opposite effect.

"When you get physically fatigued, your muscles hurt, or you're stressed. But when you're mentally fatigued, you get burned out and your performance suffers. Standing up, moving around, grabbing a snack, having a conversation -- these breaks help your brain take a break so it can refocus and refresh, which goes a long way toward increasing performance and productivity," says Lindquist.

Improving engagement

Social connections in the workplace can also contribute to greater employee engagement, which tends to correlate with better performance and productivity, says Tim Eisenhauer, co-founder and president of collaboration solutions company Axero Solutions.

"Everything falls apart when engagement levels suffer, and it's a common problem for many businesses. Fortunately, engagement rates will improve if you let employees relax and converse," and that translates to a much more positive corporate culture, Eisenhauer says.

Building culture

Culture is hugely important in such a tight talent market; without it, it's hard for companies to retain and attract the talent they need to remain competitive and innovative,"Employees need to feel comfortable and confident for a positive company culture to develop. Culture is often born from shared interests, many of which have nothing to do with work. It's unrealistic to expect collaboration and engagement to come together without the help of water cooler chat," and similar activities, Eisenhauer says.


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