Senior management in a digital workplace can become concerned about time management when important goals are not being met, yet their people are clearly working. Some employees are even working late, yet rollouts and shipments have both been delayed.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review explores whether this scenario might be a result of focus challenges among the staff, not time management per se. The focus on time management, in fact, may be masking systemic focus issues that need to be addressed with upper management’s leadership skills.

Distraction costs about $1 trillion every year. It detracts from more sophisticated knowledge work, such as thinking through new approaches, researching innovative methods, or even just taking the time to address burning issues thoughtfully.

Four Potential Challenges…and Their Solutions

The authors pinpoint four specific challenges and offer solutions.

1. A business environment that impedes focus

The creation of a business environment that undercuts employee ability to focus certainly isn’t deliberate, but it’s all too easy to create. If, for example, staffers have been told to answer e-mail promptly, they may spend an inordinate amount of time checking e-mail. 

Many knowledge industries, such as academic research, advise employees to check e-mail just three times a day, at the beginning of the day, the middle, and the end. Customer service employees, on the other hand, may end up constantly looking at their inboxes to make sure they don’t miss a communication.

The solution is twofold. First, if entire departments such as customer service are spending too much time checking for and responding to e-mail (and too little on other tasks), create a dedicated subset whose only job is to check and respond. Second, create a transparent time frame in which e-mails are expected to be answered. It may not be necessary to be immediate.

2. Employee uncertainty about which communication channel is to be used

Employees often are uncertain about which communication channel is to be used to communicate with management. Millennials, especially, tend to use e-mail for all communications. For immediate troubleshooting, however, telephone, meetings, or face-to-face communication might be better. 

The solution is to establish guidelines with a hierarchy of communication methods. The more only e-mail is used, the more solutions to issues requiring immediate response might be delayed. Stress multiple communication methods.

3. The time consumed by both receiving and solving problems

For managers and employees, being responsible for both receiving and solving problems might be significant, especially in the era of digital communications. It could, in fact, be responsible for pushing all other work to the sidelines.

The solution is to, again, dedicate groups of employees for certain functions. One group receives and one group solves. The authors stress that everyone needs time away from e-mail and telephone, so the groups may rotate.

4. Failure to count monitoring internal systems as work

This issue can revolve around IT departments, but it can also be endemic to all departments. Especially in an increasingly 24/7 world, people may be expected to monitor ongoing events via checking e-mail or simply checking into a system, even when they are ostensibly not at work.

The authors note that checking e-mail, even if no issue is found, may negatively impact employee focus. Everyone needs some time to recharge and think; distraction is fostered as much by monitoring as by being called upon to do something in response to the monitoring.

Can lack of focus be read as a time management issue? Yes, but more likely, it's the result of a failure in leadership around one or more of these four areas essential to driving organizational performance. Organizations should be aware of these four potential issues and take steps to eliminate them.