3 reasons why office distractions don't matter

March 14, 2011: 3:42 PM ET

The devastation in Japan and the start of March Madness will provide even more reasons than usual to be distracted at work. Should we really care?

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Yes, it's that time of year again. Almost 80% of employees admit, in a new poll by career site Vault.com, that they'll probably bet on basketball games at work, which will doubtless contribute to the 8.7 million hours in lost productivity that Chicago outplacement giant Challenger, Gray & Christmas is projecting for the three weeks of the NCAA championships.

It's not as if there's nothing else going on. What with the constant stream of horrendous news from Japan, that adorable laughing baby video on YouTube (you know the one), Charlie Sheen's incessant multimedia rants, and other attention grabbers too numerous to mention, let's face it, people may be a little…distracted.

If you're the boss, should you worry about it? The short answer, according to Susan Scott: Probably not.

Scott is the founder of Seattle-based training and executive development firm Fierce Inc., whose client roster includes Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), Coca-Cola (KO), Starbucks (SBUX), General Electric (GE), and many other heavy hitters. Scott is also the author of a bestseller called Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst "Best" Practices of Business Today.

"If people are getting their work done, and doing it well, don't make a big deal about distractions," she suggests, adding: "The last thing you should ever do is make a formal policy restricting non-work activities in the office. Those policies rarely fix anything. They just make people grumpy." And who needs that?

Scott sees three reasons to relax. First, by this time, "most people are so immersed in everything technology has to offer that they are adept at multitasking," she says. "They're thoroughly used to staying on top of the news, and keeping in touch with friends and family, while still getting their work done."

A second reason not to sweat it: If you want (and need) to retain young up-and-coming employees, cracking down on Facebook, Twitter, and other electronic time-vampires is a major misstep.

"To Generation Y, these things are all part of having a balanced life, which they absolutely demand and expect," Scott observes. "If you try to dictate and control every minute of their day, they will just quit," and you, as their erstwhile boss, will be left trying to explain to the people upstairs why there's no young talent in the pipeline. Gulp.

The third reason to ignore NCAA bracket mania and everything else that's happening in the office these days: If your direct reports aren't bringing their "A" game, it probably has nothing to do with any of that. It's more likely due to something you actually can control; namely, you.

"If people aren't doing their best work -- if they're missing deadlines or just not contributing great things -- you need to sit them down for a conversation and ask why," Scott says.

A partial list of questions she recommends posing: Do these folks not enjoy their jobs? Do they not feel valued? Do they not identify with what the business is trying to achieve? Do they have enough resources, and are deadlines realistic?

"Try to get to the real source of the problem," Scott advises. "What you need to figure out is, 'Where am I, as a leader, not providing what it would take to get you to give me your best stuff?' If people aren't producing the way you want them to, it's not because of a basketball game."

Scott adds: "I expect everyone who works for me to do extraordinary work, not just okay work. As long as I'm getting that, if they want to work with a game or the news on in the background, so what? Why should I care?"

Why indeed?

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Susan Scott is the CEO of Fierce, Inc. Scott is no longer the CEO of Fierce, Inc. The erroneous sentence has been corrected.

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Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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