When Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, he could well have been describing the astonishing inherent preference of play over work by human beings. There are too many distractions at work these days and the internet is usually the culprit.

Do you know with certainty what your employees are doing right now? There’s a good chance that some are really putting in work, but don’t be surprised if there are others who are mindlessly browsing through social channels or are too drained to continue working.

What’s more, in the modern world of work it’s more normal than ever before for people to be working from their devices. The physical appearance of someone who is working is hard to distinguish from someone who isn’t. Without the proper resources in place, it’s possible that someone may not accomplish anything significant in a whole day at all — and you might not even be able to notice.

This is a problem that affects large and small businesses alike. However, small businesses tend to suffer more. Because they depend on the output of each individual in the team more heavily, the effects when employees aren’t able to concentrate are more drastic.

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Employee productivity problems faced by employers

If you ask employers from different companies about problems they’re often dealing with, don’t be surprised to hear one thing in common: employee focus and productivity, or lack thereof.

When an employee starts to feel unmotivated, it can be easy for them to spiral downward poor performance and low interest. Without guidance, a consistently effective individual can turn into someone who spends more time at work browsing through their phone in just a matter of weeks. Many businesses have been dealing with problems with cell phones in the workplace in recent years.

Fixing this or any focus-related problem is easy when it’s just one employee, but it’s more likely that the problem is systemic and requires a broader strategic approach to really find the root of the issue and address it for the long-term.

First, you need to honestly ask yourself why your team has lost focus. Here are some of the common reasons why employees find it hard to stay on task.

Lack of direction in the team

If your employees feel like they’re going in circles, they’ll easily tire themselves out. In many cases, this isn’t their fault. A mistake that a lot of employers and managers make is telling their team what to do, but not explaining the reason why they’ll be doing it.

And while employees will be inspired to perform well and stand out in the beginning, it won’t take long before they start asking, “Why are we doing this again?” From there, their capacity to focus will steadily decline, and so will their work output.

Learn more about how to be an effective manager here.

Man stressed with work

A toxic work environment

“Toxic” can mean many different things, but here’s the bottom line: if an employee associates negative sensations like unexplained tiredness or inability to see the purpose of what they are doing with work, they are not in a good place.

The reason could be anywhere from unpleasant colleagues, lack of guidance, or just because they haven’t taken a vacation in two whole years. While they always have the choice to leave, it’s important to know that however their manager decides to handle the situation plays a pivotal role in what’s going to happen next.

There are just too many distractions

Resisting distractions is a skill that can be developed over time, but even the most experienced and accomplished individuals can fall victim to them every once in a while.

But when the number of things that can keep your employees’ focus from work is simply too high, things start to get messy.

Imagine having so much other stuff you can do while working — the arcade games installed on your smartphone, that book lying just behind your laptop, or that gaming console lying in the corner of the office. Having a strong mindset helps, but it will cost a lot of mental energy on just avoiding them if they’re literally just an arm’s reach away.

Without further ado, here are ways a manager can ensure that employees remain focused.

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1. Be transparent with expectations from the beginning

You can worry about how to keep your employees focused all day. But the truth is, if they aren’t aware of what they’re supposed to do in the first place you won’t have much to work with. Focusing is impossible if you’re not sure what you should be focusing on.

In other words, make it a point to set clear expectations early on. You’ll be thanking yourself down the road.

Think of being clear with your expectations as giving your team a head start. Let them know that you’re counting on them to make good use of their time, and that you’ll be taking measures to make sure that they are doing just that. This will let them know that there is a standard they need to meet, and that you trust them at the same time.

2. Give credit for good work

You’ll have some people in your team who are highly dedicated to work from the get-go. These are individuals who are able to stay concentrated at work for long periods of time that you wonder how long they’ll be able to keep it up.

Generally, it’s not really a question of whether they can or cannot. It’s more about how much they want to. So, how do you keep these employees happy and motivated?

When an employee is performing well, be sure to give credit where it’s due. One of the simplest ways to do this is by giving recognition even through just a mention in your team chat. It helps in keeping them motivated, and can incentivize them to continue upping their game.

3. Encourage work-life balance in the workplace

When job searching, there are two things people often consider to be the highest priority: money and work-life balance. A lot of the time, even a high-paying job isn’t worth sacrificing balance. A harmony between their personal and professional lives is what makes employees happy with their job.

Placing an emphasis on work-life balance encourages your employees to take care of themselves more actively. This is one of the best long-term solutions you can do to keep your team consistently productive.

While it may sound counterintuitive, not pouring all their energy into work actually helps them work better. How to keep employees from leaving? Simple: let them leave their work every once in a while.

Knowing that they can take breaks when they need to, and — more importantly — that their own personal lives aren’t less important than work, helps reduce stress and keep their minds sharp.

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4. Schedule annual retreats

There are a variety of reasons why you should have a team retreat, but here’s the bottom line: it can do wonders for your team’s mental health.

Retreats offer your employees not only a well-deserved break from work, but also a chance to develop personal connections with their colleagues. Hours of work-related discussions inevitably lead to burnout, and retreats mitigate this problem very effectively.

When your team returns to work, they’ll have a stronger bond with everyone else, and they’ll be back fully fresh. Both bring only good things for your business.

5. Track time and work with Hubstaff

When employees are working on company time, a policy of time logging should be in place. This is best achieved using time tracking with activity monitoring and screen capture capabilities.

This is what Hubstaff — an all-in-one productivity solution — brings to the table, and more. Teams can record the time they work, and you can view the screenshots to get an idea of how they’ve been working throughout the day.

On top of time tracking, Hubstaff has timesheets and automated payroll features that make team management completely hassle-free. You can set the app to automatically send payments based on the timesheets created from the hours they have worked so you can focus on growing your business.

Hubstaff is available on Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. Pricing starts at $5/month per user.

What methods do you use to keep your team in top shape?

Having skilled people in your team is great for your business. But, as cliché as it may sound, they’re only human — and sooner or later everyone succumbs to distractions and stress. Try out the tips above to stop burnout before it starts.

Do you have techniques of your own in keeping your team focused? Do you follow an authoritative approach, or are you more laid back? Let us know what works for you in the comments below.

This post was originally published in January, 2015. It was updated by the Hubstaff Blog Team in December, 2019.