In benchmark tests with one of our customers — a public company and fastest growing provider of Point of Sale solutions for small businesses — we found that simply eliminating distractions from ‘glitchiness’ in their sales calling tool grew call activity by 21% and ultimately led to 13% more conversations.

This performance lift became a consistent pattern with every subsequent customer we onboarded, once we knew what to look for, and we wondered what drove such a boost in productivity from such a small change.

We turned to an expert psychologist to find out why, and in this article, we’ll share what we learned about the nature of focus and why very small optimizations to how teams work can yield such strong results.

It turns out, we’re less focused than ever…

The average office worker is distracted every 3 minutes. And according to research from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University it can take up to 25 minute just to regain focus after being distracted.

Open office plans, push notifications and increasing customer demands are all contributing to this killer of productivity. Extensive research by organizations like Harvard Business School have concluded open office spaces are among the worst workplace initiatives of all time.

Workers are recognizing this and are opting to do things like do call blocks from conference rooms and work remotely in order to improve their focus an output.

The Science of Focus

There are two types of focus: top-down and bottom-up.

Top down focus is the kind we want to promote inside of our companies… it’s intentional and goal-oriented, and generally what drives superior performance in short sprints like call blocks, sales SPIFs and other bursts of activity that managers try to induce on their teams.

Bottom up focus is the enemy of top down focus. It’s what’s triggered by sudden distractions like push notifications, sudden movements, etc. This is the part of your brain that’s reminiscent from our cave man/woman ancestors, and with good reason- it’s tied to your fight or flight response. This means that it releases the same brain chemicals that are tied to things that surprise you. If you think about how long it takes to get over being ‘shocked’, this is consistent with the difficulty in moving from bottom up to top down focus.

Things that commonly distract reps include:

  • Overhearing something notable: when reps share information with each other or their managers in between calls
  • App glitches and reliability issues: when an app hangs or doesn’t quite work right, the reps’ mind shifts focus from the task (making calls) to troubleshooting. “What’s broken”, “is it my fault”, “how do I fix it” are cognitive tasks that are very different from the mindset tied to ‘execution’ issues.

Managing Focus As a Team

The thing about focus in open office situations is that it often cascades. In our benchmark tests, we found that spikes in call activity reports often happen with people in groups. This is often tied to one of two things happening:

  • Total Focus: the reps in a pod are free of distraction and are completely locked into top-down focus
  • Total Distraction: when a rep has a problem with their software, the first thing they do is turn to another rep and engage them in testing. Essentially, they end up calling each other over and over again to figure out what’s broken. This not only throws off activity reporting but also showcases how brittle focus can be.

Power Tips

While your brain is prone to distraction, certain activities are proven to work well:

  • Playing music: music serves two purposes. First, rhythmic sounds (eg: beats) keep people focused on the task at hand. Second, music reduces the amount of ambient noise you hear so you don’t get unwanted stimuli pulling you into bottom-up focus.
  • Disable notifications: most desktop computers and mobile phones enable you to disable notifications, getting rid of distracting sounds and messages.
  • Keep a snack handy: it turns out that the motion of chewing (gum/food/etc) stimulates the parts of the brain that are specific to top-down focus. We’ve never heard snacking companies talk about this as a benefit but studies show it works.

What’s distraction costing you?

The customer we started this article with realized a 21% increase in calls and a 13% increase in conversations in 30 days. That’s real revenue with almost zero behavior change. Their rep CSAT with their dialer went up from 5% to 75% and they saved 2 full time employees by eliminating reliability issues.

Think you can benefit from a more focused team? Talk to a member of our team today!