How to Manage Distracted Employees

Is there one cubicle or desk in the office where it seems everyone gathers to share a joke or recap the highlights of last night’s Game of Thrones episode? Are you tired of approaching an employee to ask for assistance on a project, only to find him or her glued to their smart phone? Maybe you have a few people on staff who are always “too busy” to pinch in on a task, but  they are constantly on Facebook or Twitter whenever you pass their desk.  Here are some steps you can take right now to improve productivity in your office. 

By Marty Martin, Psy.D.

As all managers know, workday distractions are everywhere, stealing your employees’ time and productivity. Between new technologies that beg for people’s attention to the prevalence of shortened attention spans, everyone on your team has the opportunity to be more distracted today than in the past. Of course, this creates numerous problems at work, from missed opportunities to strained business relationships. Therefore, you need to effectively manage your employees so their distractions are minimized. 

There are two categories of distraction: internal and external. The former includes any physiological, emotional, attitudinal, biological, or physical discomfort we feel. Some examples include having an upset stomach or a headache, worrying about a personal or professional matter, feeling overwhelmed with tasks, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, experiencing anger toward a co-worker, grieving a loss, etc. Any of these things can quickly take an employee off track from his or her tasks.

The latter category is comprised of other people and technology. Examples include co-workers who stop by someone’s office to chat, social media, text alerts on a smart phone, email notifications popping up on a computer screen, other employees who talk loudly in the office, etc. These seemingly innocuous items easily divert peoples’ attention. 

The challenge is that most employees aren’t experiencing just one or two of these distractions; they’re facing multiple each day. Consider this common scenario: Customer service representatives are responsible for telephone, email, and chat communications. When customers call in, the reps have scripts to follow for each scenario. In addition, they are also instant messaging with customers and answering emails. In fact, each rep’s computer screen is divided into quarters: one quadrant has the details of the caller on the phone, and the other three quadrants are active chats he or she is engaged in simultaneously. These reps are also in an office space where the physical difference between them may be five to eight feet. Even when wearing a headset, they can still hear the other reps talking. Maybe the person on their right likes to stand while talking, so that’s a visual distraction. Perhaps their chair is old and uncomfortable, or to save money, the company has the thermostat set to 80 degrees in the middle of summer. The distractions seem never-ending!

On top of all the internal and external distractions, organizational structures have changed over the years, packing in more duties and responsibilities to every job description. That means your employees today have to spread their attention thin just to complete their expected workload. With all of these factors, it’s no wonder so many people feel distracted at work. 

Fortunately, most distractions can be eliminated from the workplace, if you take the time to manage them. Here’s how:


  • Design/Redesign the Job.

When a manager has a distracted employee, it’s natural to blame the person and say things such as, “He’s not a team player,” “She’s not motivated,” or “He doesn’t work well here.” The manager may even reprimand the individual for poor performance. Before you go that route, take a good look at the job and the environment to see if that is making the employee distracted. 


What are the job duties — and not just the ones explicitly stated in the job description, but also the duties that person just always seems to do. What’s the working environment like? What visual or auditory distraction triggers are present? How is the office set up? What are the lighting, the chair, and the desk layout like? What other factors could be impacting the employee’s efficiency, effectiveness, and performance?

Realize that if the work environment and the job are poorly designed, you will continue to bring in highly talented individuals who will not do well — not because of them, but because of the bad job design. Before you reprimand, analyze the situation. What you find may surprise you.


  • Create a Plan.

Think back to your elementary school days. You likely had a few kids in the class who always bothered others, threw spit balls, or just stared out the window for hours. What did the teacher do? If the kids were disruptive to the class, she’d move them up front near her. If they were window gazers, she’d orient their desk so they could no longer see the window. No matter what the disruptive behavior, she knew what to do because she had a plan in mind for it. 

Good managers do the same. They sit down with the distracted employee and together create a Distraction Elimination Plan (DEP). By working together, they may decide on some physical changes in the office that can help, such as moving to a new cubicle or changing the lighting, or they may figure out some strategies the employee can use to maintain focus, such as not having an email program always open or disabling smart phone alerts. 

The great thing about a plan is that it gives you something concrete to reference and use as a benchmark to gauge progress. Additionally, all organizations have risk management, strategic, operational, and business plans, so why not also have a distraction elimination plan? Distractions rarely self-resolve. The better the plan, the better the results. 

Offer Other Resources.

Sometimes, even with the manager’s help and a solid DEP in place, the employee is still distracted. In these cases, the manager has to know when to offer additional resources. If your organization has an employee assistance program, consider making a recommendation to an appropriate resource or service. 

If your organization does not have such a program, present the idea of additional help in a supportive and neutral fashion. Perhaps it could be a step in the DEP, as in “If the outlined steps in this plan don’t resolve the issue, then the employee will seek outside assistance in the form of a counselor or therapist.” The key is to help the employee find the needed resources in order to determine if their situation is more serious than simple distractions. 

Immediate Steps.

The next time you notice employees who are underperforming, don’t immediately reprimand them. Instead, take the time to determine if there’s something you or the company can do to remove the distractions from the workplace. Distractions don’t have to be a major part of the work day. You can help minimize them. Remember, the fewer distractions people have, the more productive they’ll be. 

About the Author

Dr. Marty Martin, known for his state-of-the art content presented in an engaging, dynamic fashion, has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for many years. His book, Taming Disruptive Behavior, is being published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE). Dr. Martin is the Director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and Associate Professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, please visit his website:

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