So much to do, so little time. And it doesn't help that the guy down the hall is always dropping by your cubicle to share unsolicited lawn-care tips. Then there are the phone, the e-mail, the micromanaging boss to deal with. On a typical day office workers are interrupted about seven times an hour, which adds up to 56 interruptions a day, 80% of which are considered trivial, according to time-management experts. "We pride ourselves on being multitaskers, but the truth is, we're functioning at a state of partial attention," says John White, international program director with Priority Management, a training company based in Vancouver, Canada. "Because of constant interruptions, our memory, follow-up ability, flexibility and quality of work start to erode."
That is, quite frankly, a real waste of time. U.S. productivity growth is slowing, and companies have just about maxed out on efficiency gains to be had through layoffs and employee buyouts. So employers are increasingly recognizing that the best hope for improving productivity is--as wacky as it sounds--enabling folks to be more productive.
Some of the techniques are surprisingly low tech. At Pitt Ohio Express, a trucking company based in Pittsburgh, Pa., claims auditors take turns wearing a special black baseball cap to signal that they are absorbed in a project. Department head Lois Beggs says she takes several hours "under the cap" to catch up on her 150 emails a day when she has been away from the office. At Quarasan, an educational-product developer in Chicago, workers take "focus blocks" of up to three hours when they absolutely cannot be interrupted. "They know they don't have to jump when someone comes to their desk or have a Pavlovian response when the phone rings," says president Randi Brill. In any week, about 25% of the staff use the technique. Signs hang on cubicles, chairs or doors with such declarations as I AM FEELING TOTALLY FOCUSED RIGHT NOW. PLEASE RESPECT THIS PROCESS.
There is also a new wave of gadgets that help keep workers on task. CubeDoors--portable, retractable, mesh-weave panels from CubeSmart in Fort Worth, Texas--block entry into cubicles, effectively saying "Busy" to would-be interlopers. In 2003 the company sold 1,500 "doors," which cost $30 each. Sales are up 300% this year. New on the market last year: the Quiet Technology sound-masking system from office-furniture maker Herman Miller. Designed for open-layout work environments, the system renders speech beyond a 12-ft. to 16-ft. radius unintelligible with "pink noise" technology embedded in the furniture. To a user, it sounds like gentle whooshing. What it does is match the frequencies of human speech to make colleagues' chatter less distracting. The cost of creating such quiet zones: 75¢ per sq. ft., about half that of conventional sound-reduction systems, says product manager Amy Sremba.
And while online communications are often a time-stealing culprit, some companies are finding relief in them. All the employees at Basex, an information-technology research firm in New York City, use instant messaging. A simple switch to DO NOT DISTURB status signals that coworkers shouldn't phone, email or stop by to chat. "There was never a memo on it. We all just started using the technology," says CEO Jonathan Spira. Finding peace and quiet should always be so easy.