Office chatter: Workplace distraction or morale booster?

Socializing with co-workers can boost productivity and camaraderie, but what can you do when it becomes a distraction for everyone else?

The last few weeks have been a pop-cultural watershed moment, with the release of Avengers: Endgame coinciding with the debut of Game of Thrones’ final season. Both have plenty of people talking around the water cooler, and if you haven’t seen either yet — or are like this author, desperately binge-watching every season of Game of Thrones in a belated attempt to catch up with fans who have been watching for the past eight years — those spoiler-ridden conversations can be quite the distraction.

In fact, as workplace distractions go, co-worker conversations top the list, according to a recent survey from staffing firm Accountemps. More than 1,000 U.S. workers were surveyed and among their biggest distractions on the job are:

  • Employees chatting and socializing (32 percent)
  • Non-business related internet use (25 percent)
  • Meetings (23 percent)
  • Personal calls or emails (9 percent)
  • Work-related email (6 percent)

This is backed up by another survey, this one in 2018 by Udemy, that found nearly three quarters of workers (70 percent) admit to feeling distracted when they’re on the job, with 16 percent admitting that they’re almost always distracted. The problem is largest among millennials and Gen Zers, with 74 percent reporting feeling distracted.

Is workplace chatter a negative, or could it be a good thing for office camaraderie?

“[For the real world] winter has finally gone, but the hype over the final season of Game of Thrones is in full effect,” says Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager for Accountemps in Madison. “Add to that the excitement surrounding Avengers: Endgame and you’ve got plenty of pop culture to chat about at the water cooler with colleagues.

“While it’s always fun to chat with co-workers about the most recent Game of Thrones episode — without spoiling it for anyone, of course — it’s important for employees to be able to balance personal and professional obligations. Socializing with colleagues can have a positive effective on workplace productivity and employee morale. However, if workers are spending too much time on nonwork tasks, managers should explore why. It could be the result of the employee having too much or too little work to do. They may need to be assigned a more challenging or exciting project.”

Everyone needs a break from time to time, notes Truckenbrod, and when co-workers have healthy relationships, worker productivity and retention can improve. Colleagues who have strong relationships at work are more likely to support one another when faced with challenges or new responsibilities, giving a boost to team spirit. Those who can form friendships early on the job are likely to acclimate more quickly and stay on board for the long term.

It’s important for employers to have some level of flexibility when it comes to employee conversations, for reasons beyond camaraderie alone.

The unemployment rate in Madison is at 2.4 percent, and competition for the “throne” represents the growing demand to find and keep skilled talent, explains Truckenbrod. The recent JOLTS report found that U.S. job openings increased by the most in a single year (7.5 million open jobs) and there are 0.83 unemployed workers for every available job — meaning more jobs than available candidates.

“Worker confidence is at an all-time high, with nearly six in 10 job seekers (59 percent) receiving two or more offers simultaneously when applying for jobs,” states Truckenbrod. “Just like in Game of Thrones, loyalties in the job market can change at the drop of a hat, so companies’ investment in top professionals is key to keeping them around. That means offering a stellar compensation package, fostering an organizational culture where flexibility is king, and offering challenging work in addition to professional development opportunities.”

Truckenbrod recommends employers do their own assessment of the team or engage in discussions with staff members to find out whether staff are wasting too much time and why. “It’s OK for employees to chat for a few minutes here and there, but if projects aren’t getting done, it may be an issue.”

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If managers find people are overloaded or working longer hours and unable to attend to personal obligations outside of work, try to adjust their responsibilities or schedules. Sometimes, a simple scheduling shift may be all that’s necessary to help somebody gain the balance they need to remain better focused at work.

“You might also find people feel bored or disengaged,” says Truckenbrod. “Offer more challenging and interesting projects, but also take a bigger-picture look at how staff are managed and compensated. If needed, provide more praise and enhance your reward system. When people see their work is appreciated, they’re more motivated to improve their performance.”

Opting out of the open office

Another culprit feeding into workplace distractions is the open-office concept itself.

What once seemed like a harmless solution for cutting costs and building a more collaborative environment, has now become the bane of many workers’ existences.

A 2017 survey by enterprise software strategist William Belk found that 58 percent of high-performance employees say they need more private spaces for problem solving, while 54 percent of high performers report their office environment is “too distracting.”

Another study found the same thing. Many workers respond to the noise of an open office by putting on headphones and tuning out. The lack of privacy prompts others to work from home when they can.

When possible, employers with open offices should make quiet spaces available to workers who need them to concentrate on important or deadline-driven tasks, while still maintaining the open concept they deem important for company cohesion.

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