How workplace distractions can actually boost productivity

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Recent research from BambooHR shows that breaks, small talk and socializing in the workplace can actually help bolster productivity and employee engagement.

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.

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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.

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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.

In fact, a lot of startups and forward-thinking companies are designing their office spaces to reflect an increased emphasis on communication and collaboration, with open floor plans and shared workspaces. Of course, there should still be enclosed, private spaces for meetings or when employees need to really focus without distractions, but in general, the emphasis is on constant communication and collaboration, Lindquist says.

Facilitating communication and collaboration can be as simple as making small talk, says Eisenhauer, especially if you have a variety of personality types in your workplace. "Some people find it easy to work and collaborate with people they don't know. Others need a degree of shared personal interests for collaboration to be at its best. Getting to know someone before diving into complex tasks together can make a huge difference," he says.

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Water cooler chats, coffee breaks and casual conversation not only improve engagement and productivity, they can also increase workers' interactions with senior level management and executives, and foster increased trust in and respect for company leadership, Eisenhauer says.

"If employees are afraid or hesitant to talk with their managers or with higher-level executives, your business will suffer. People are more likely to open up when the conversation is about personal interests and not about work-related details. Water cooler chat is ideal for people to get more comfortable with their managers," and company executives; they'll be more comfortable speaking up and making their voices heard, he says, and they'll trust that leadership will listen.

The bottom line? Don't be so quick to discourage these activities when you see them. If you're encouraging social interaction, communication and collaboration, employees will notice. They'll be more willing to trust you, to go the extra mile when needed and be more loyal to their employer. That respect will translate to greater engagement, increased collaboration and better productivity overall.

"Employees want workplaces where they can establish friendships, communicate and collaborate openly. If you want to retain your current employees and attract new talent, you almost have to double down on the social and collaborative aspects of the workforce. If you try and impose restrictions, they'll go find someplace else to work," Lindquist says.

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