By Jeff Erwin, CEO, Intego

It’s a scenario any small business could face: Your sales person is tasked with sending out at least half-a-dozen proposals a day, but he consistently misses deadlines. You notice he’s spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, Instagram and on Internet “research,” and not enough time in the CRM.

Research at the University of California found that workers are interrupted approximately once every 10.5 minutes by instant messages, tweets, Facebook updates, notifications, and emails. It then takes an average of 23 minutes to regain concentration. The impact of these interruptions is staggering—it’s estimated that lost productivity from unrestricted social media usage alone costs the American economy almost $650 billion a year.

This begs the question: Is your company’s digital work environment conducive to productivity?

No matter the industry or size of the company, business leaders agree that the Internet has become a blessing and a curse. Small businesses (SB) are particularly affected by productivity losses when employees’ attention is diverted to social media. As employers struggle with effectively managing the productivity of a digitally obsessed workforce, they face a quandary: Should they limit Internet access or keep it open? How can they keep their employees focused and productive long term?

The “B” in SB Doesn’t Stand For “Big Brother”

Approaching the topic of employee productivity can be a sensitive issue. An employer can easily come across as overbearing and accusatory. Take a heavy-handed approach to excessive Internet usage and wilting productivity, and you could find yourself with low employee morale to boot—likely leading to an even further dip in productivity.

However, tie your efforts to increase employee productivity to concrete rewards, and you can bolster team building and a feeling of departmental self-improvement that can spread across the company, bonding employees toward a common goal. Research shows that when employees are empowered to take responsibility for their productivity and are rewarded for their results, positive benefits occur companywide. So aim to create an environment where employees want to succeed, and avoid adopting an all-stick-no-carrot approach.

How can an employer monitor employee productivity without being viewed as “Big Brother?” One suggestion is to outline a detailed process to help your staff achieve personal objectives:

  • Begin by assessing your business’ overall productivity to identify potential efficiencies
  • Drill down and address each employee’s working habits, behavior and productivity levels
  • Educate staff about the personal and business benefits that can be achieved
  • Implement through one-on-one support, technology-based solutions and business guidelines
  • Monitor the results, measure performance regularly and constantly assess business progress
  • Celebrate success as a team to keep morale high

Employee Productivity as Business Imperative

The above is a proven framework for any small business. But employees are individuals, and employers would be wise to take into consideration differences in work habits. Some employees might benefit more from an open Internet policy, while others may be more productive with restrictions on access.

It’s also worth considering productivity and accountability solutions for remote workers and home-based employees. In this regard, cloud-based solutions such as Flextivity can help with the setup and ongoing management of that part of your strategy. Understanding and measuring the output of staff when at home is a hot topic in this day and age, especially as more staff begin to work more flexibly.

As you work to make improvements, expect disagreements among employees on how to reach your shared goals. As with all relationships, good communication with your staff will go a long way to resolving any tensions that may arise. Let your team debate what is acceptable to stimulate productive conversations. This is bound to lead to even better ideas for improvement.

No matter the location of your employees, gather their opinions on what constitutes unproductive behavior. Some may consider it absolutely fine to check a smartphone occasionally, while others might see this as a distraction. Ultimately, conversations like this will provide enough input for you to decide what is appropriate and what is not.

Don’t expect to agree with all of your employee’s suggestions, and don’t expect all of your employees to agree with the policies you decide to enforce. More important than achieving perfect agreement across the board is that you have allowed their input. As a result, employees will feel validated; they’ll feel a sense of ownership in the company. In turn, this will help kindle team spirit, which will motivate employees to collaborate more effectively in their daily tasks. And this will positively impact your bottom line.

Employee Productivity is Part of IT, Too

Tailoring your strategy to each staff member individually is critical for the small business’ use of technology in order to gauge which solutions will best support the process and determine how much resources it should allocate to the task. In businesses where the IT “department” is one or two employees, or the business owner, budgets are often small and technical ability often built around reactive IT, rather than business strategy.

As a result, IT needs to be able to monitor activity through easy cloud-based management solutions—without any of the complexity or resource demands typically associated with traditional cloud-based services.

The right solution will allow IT to identify how often social media affects an employee’s workflow, and then minimize the distraction by allowing them social media access only during certain times of the day. It can allow IT to gain new insights into employees’ behavior, such as the amount of time spent using applications or browsing non-work related websites.

With the right solution and a targeted approach, you’ll see improvements in productivity. So be aware of employee demands, consider behavioral preferences and create a process that raises productivity for all staff. It’s your key to plugging the productivity drain and ensuring greater business success.

Jeff Erwin is the CEO  of Intego and Flextivity.