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Productivity: the importance of improving.... focus

Published 13th December 2017 by Investors in People
Focusing through a camera lens

Productivity in advanced economies is stalling, with the UK faring particularly badly. Why? There are many plausible economic explanations that we as a country must grapple with. But what can organisations themselves do in order to drive productivity? In a new article series, Investors in People will look at what makes human-driven organisations productive: the first article tackles focus.

What is focus in organisations?

Singh & Terwiesch (2011) define three levels of focus: the organisation-wide level, the operating unit (team) level and the process flow (task) level. All three levels involve people focusing as individuals, but the operating unit level and the organisation-wide level also involve collective focus, or the ability of a group to focus as one.

Focus at all three levels requires two actions: firstly, consciously directing attention towards something. Secondly, sustaining that attention for a necessary period of time. The organisation-wide level requires the most sustained attention because this type of focus is aimed at the long-term, strategic level, rather than at the task or project level.

What drives individual and collective ability to focus?

Most focus-enhancing factors influence both individual and collective focus, although some may be more relevant to one than the other. Interpersonal factors, for example, are particularly important to collective focus because interpersonal conflict can reduce team effectiveness.

  • Our mental state: being exhausted, anxious or depressed makes focus very difficult. Healthy mental wellbeing, combined with an openness to new experiences, is the foundation of sustainable focus.
  • The environment: is it filled with distractions or quiet and full of natural light? Are we able to sit comfortably and move to different workspaces easily in order to benefit from the novelty dividend?
  • Our motivation: do we feel motivated by the short-term and long-term outcomes of sustained focus? Do we see the benefit of focusing? Focus requires effort and effort is easier when we know that effort will be rewarded..
  • Work satisfaction: are we happy with our roles, the design of our jobs, our connection with the organisation and the place of work in our lives? It’s hard to focus if work is more of an energy drain than an energy builder.
  • Self-confidence: do we feel our abilities are sufficient to tackle the thing we must focus on? It’s difficult to focus if we have to tolerate nagging self-doubt that our efforts will be in vain.
  • Managerial support: are we backed by managers in our efforts to focus in a particular area? Will they ensure our efforts are recognised by senior leaders and will they cascade down organisational goals to ensure alignment between all levels of the organisation? Effective line manager skills are very important here.
  • Vision: is the shared vision strong enough to create a tight-knit interpersonal environment that encourages us to focus on working together to achieve the vision as well as to focus separately on individual goals?
  • Values: is there a driving sense of purpose that acts as a collective motivator, creating positive social pressure that inspires us to focus on meeting our goals in order to drive the unit towards its collective purpose?
  • Interpersonal skills: to focus as a unit, collaboration and communication are crucial because we can’t focus effectively if we are concerned about the intent of our colleagues or sidetracked by misunderstandings and social uncertainty. This is particularly important when operating in virtual teams.

Why is focus important for productivity?

Productivity is often defined as the amount of value added per employee in a specific amount of time. Focus helps us deliver greater value in the same amount of time in a number of ways, including:

Sustained focus helps stop the brain from slipping into multitasking

Reducing wellbeing-related absences

Focus is essential to healthy work-life balance: if we are unable to focus on recuperation and life outside work, for example because of always-on technology, we may suffer from anxiety and eventually burnout, which can lead to poor concentration, poor-quality decision-making and absence from work, all of which lower the amount of value we add.

Improving quality of thinking

Many of the decisions we have to make are so complex that it can take a long time simply to load the problem into our heads. Mentally juggling many variables, connecting them in abstract ways and making informed decisions requires sustained focus. This is important because the less optimal our decisions, the less value we add.

Reducing multitasking-related losses

We’ve written before on the importance of reducing multitasking at work: multitasking is a myth and in fact involves fast switching between tasks, which creates a ‘switching cost’ that induces fatigue, reducing our productivity and the quality of our output. Sustained focus helps stop the brain from slipping into multitasking, which can happen easily due to a range of factors, including open-plan working environments and overuse of technology at work.

Improving learning outcomes

Rekart (2010) found that a lack of focus reduced learning in the short-term and said that it might affect long-term memory and retention. With the need for organisations to be learning organisations in order to continue being productive in the face of a changing world, anything that stops us learning - and therefore stops us being better able to cope with new challenges - will limit the value we can add.

Focus requires effort and effort is easier when we know that effort will be rewarded..

5 ways for HR to encourage greater focus in organisations

  1. Create quiet spaces: focus is much easier knowing we won’t be distracted. Quiet spaces give people the confidence their efforts to focus will not be wasted.
  2. Educate on energy management: we cannot focus if we don’t have reserves of mental and physical energy. HR should help individuals manage their energy throughout the day.
  3. Ensure simple goals are created and cascaded down: focus is much easier if we know what we’re working towards and why we’re doing it. Organisational goals should be cascaded down to front-line workers and tasks that contribute to these goals co-created between line manager and direct report.
  4. Encourage a wellbeing culture: people must be able to switch off fully from work in order to focus again the next day. HR can help employees do this by reducing the impact of technology on wellbeing and crafting good-quality flexible working policies.
  5. Provide time management training: focus cannot be maintained indefinitely and rest periods are essential to productivity at work because we simply cannot add value without recuperating. Energy management, above, is one half of the puzzle - the other is knowing effective time management techniques for compartmentalising our focus.