by Maura Nevel Thomas

attention management

Some managers judge the productivity of their team members by what can be observed during time in the office. Are they staring intently at their computer? Constantly running to meetings? When did they arrive and leave? 

It’s true that “knowledge work” has intangible outputs, like analysis, relationships, and creativity, and these things are hard to measure. But “face time in the office” is a poor metric. And of course it’s not even applicable for remote teams.

This makes some managers uneasy. Even as they’re aware of research showing that remote workers are happy and more productive, they may still struggle with an internal belief that team members are more likely to slack off when they’re out of sight.

In my work as a productivity trainer, speaker and author, I’ve seen that misconceptions about productivity and remote teams are widespread. So let’s clarify the issues and talk about what really works when it comes to boosting the productivity of your remote team.

A *Real* Productivity Challenge for a Remote Team

Critics of remote work claim that it makes employees less efficient because they’re distracted by other things (like personal tasks). But that argument ignores something obvious: Thanks to technology, a whole world of distractions follows us anywhere we try to work — the office, at home, a coffee shop … you name it.

And distraction is indeed a big problem. Far too many knowledge workers spend their days careening from one email, phone call or text message to another. They try to get important work done in two-minute bursts between interruptions — not exactly a recipe for high-quality results. They’re constantly anxious because they don’t have a handle on everything they need to do.

But distraction is not exclusively a problem of remote teams. The key to productivity isn’t where the work is happening. It’s ensuring that teams can navigate constant distractions and the relentless rush of incoming communication no matter where they’re working.

The Solution: Attention Management

The way to do this is by teaching your team members attention management skills. The practice of attention management allows you to recognize what “brain state” you’re in, and shift to the one that will produce the best results for you in the moment.

When my clients learn attention management, they regain a sense of control over their work and their lives. They do more of what’s really important to them. And they feel more calm and less stressed.

There are many ways to get started with attention management, such as:

  • Controlling your technology.
  • Controlling your environment (both in terms of your physical surroundings and the people around you).
  • Controlling your habits.
  • Controlling your thoughts.

Attention Management for Remote Teams

Many attention management strategies apply to any knowledge worker, regardless of their location. For example, just about everyone benefits from turning off app notifications (controlling your technology) or getting all of their tasks onto a single list instead of trying to keep track of them in their head (controlling your thoughts).

But there are also some tips that are specific to remote teams:

Encourage Your Team Members to Clear Physical Clutter

Physical clutter is distracting for anyone. But it can be even more of an attention thief for remote workers. Clutter at home can carry more emotional charge than clutter at the office, and it can be more pervasive. Encourage team members who work at home to have a dedicated, low-clutter space they can go to when they’re on the job.

Help Troubleshoot Distractions

Likewise, talk with your team members about whether other people are nearby while they work remotely. This isn’t a problem in itself, of course. After all, any employee in an open office has to get work done while surrounded by others. But, like office workers, remote workers must be able to manage distractions from other people.

For example, if your employee’s kids get home before the end of the workday, is there someone else who can watch them? Or perhaps you have an understanding that your team member will take a timeout to be with them and then do some more work later in the evening. Just be aware that combining flexible hours with remote work can give the impression of “always on,” and this can unintentionally “speed up” your culture so that no one feels they can completely disconnect, such as on evenings and weekends.

Set Clear Email Guidelines

Is your organization’s culture email-centric? When employees feel compelled to respond to emails quickly, even after standard business hours, their attention stays in their inbox, not on more important work. Remote workers can be especially vulnerable to this because they want to show that they’re engaged and responsive. The solution is to set clear communication guidelines about which communication tool should be used in which situation. For example, if your team members know that urgent communications will come via phone call or text, they’ll feel more comfortable closing out their email sometimes to focus on other things. 

It’s also important to have clear expectations of availability. If you don’t actually expect staff to be answering emails around the clock, create a practice of refraining from after-hours emails, by using the “schedule send” feature of common mail clients like Outlook. This allows all of your team members to rest and recharge in the evenings instead of checking their messages, and will alleviate the added pressure that remote team members may feel to “prove” that they are accessible and responsive.

You can find many more tips and ideas like these in my new book, “Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity — Every Day.”


About the author

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System, a process for achieving significant results and living a life of choice, has influenced the practices at organizations such as the U.S. Army, L’Oréal, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker for 2018 in Inc. Magazine. Maura is frequently cited as an expert in major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.  

You can also catch Maura’s appearance on The Remarkable Leadership Podcast with Kevin Eikenberry.

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