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A CanFocus device on a desk in the Toronto office of Bnotions. The person managing the device turns the light to red if he doesn’t want to be disturbed at his work.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Upon entering the Bnotions office in Toronto, visitors will notice something a little different. It's not the life-sized plastic horse or even the beer-pong tables, but a sleek little circular device placed on top of most desks, glowing either green or red.

The mobile and Internet design and development firm is among the first dozen companies to take the MyFocus device for a test drive. The new device and its accompanying software blocks all digital distractions from mobile phones and computers at the push of a button, and glows red to tell those nearby that the user is trying to concentrate on the task at hand.

It's an effort to reduce what has become a growing problem in today's workplace. Between the increasingly popular open-office layout that reduces privacy, and the myriad distractions that come loaded onto smartphones and computers, employers are finding it more difficult to keep their staff focused, and employees are having a hard time concentrating on a single task for prolonged periods.

A recent workplace survey by Steelcase Inc., a Michigan-based furniture manufacturer, found that the average employee loses approximately 86 minutes a day to unnecessary distractions, costing employers an average of $10,375 per employee per year.

The MyFocus button, which costs between $20 and $35 a month with a contract, is an attempt to mitigate that problem and let people get back to work, said Paul Chipperton, chief executive of Toronto-based, which developed the tool.

"You're disrupted … every seven minutes on average, either digitally or physically," he said. "The irony of ironies now is that the last place you can get work done is at work."

Office distractions are a significant problem when you consider that even brief interruptions such as text messages and taps on the shoulder can have a lasting impact, said Erik Altmann, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. In his recent study, titled "Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought," Prof. Altmann explored the effects of minor interruptions.

"What we found is that an interruption of just under three seconds on average doubled the rate at which people lost their place in a sequential task," he said. "Interruptions of four seconds in duration tripled the error rate. So it doesn't take much to cause someone to lose their train of thought."

Prof. Altmann believes that even having a smartphone within arm's reach can cause distractions, as people tend to check their devices compulsively for updates.

"If it's turned off and in your line of sight, you'll want to fiddle with it," he said. "If you really want to block it out, you have to turn it off and put it away. Those two things are both key."

The endless flow of e-mails, phone calls, text messages and social media updates is often referred to as "information overload," a term popularized more than 40 years ago in Alvin Toffler's bestselling book Future Shock.

Nathan Zeldes, an information technology consultant and founder of the Information Overload Group, has studied this phenomenon and believes technology has advanced too quickly for people to properly cope with the sudden influx of distractions.

"The technology advances so rapidly that the organizational culture and the behavioural modes haven't caught up yet – so we do need to catch up and figure out how to have all this technology and still give people some part of the time with less interruptions so they can focus," he said.

Mr. Zeldes said employers must find ways to help keep their staff focused without banning devices and blocking websites outright, which can have a negative effect on employee morale and office culture.

"Some people call in sick so they can stay home and do work, which is ridiculous, but I've seen it happen," he said. "Instead, what we should do is … change the organizational norms."

That's exactly what Paul Crowe, partner of Bnotions, hopes the MyFocus button will do. Mr. Crowe said he did not force any of his employees to adopt the distraction-stopping device, although 50 of his 60 employees did just that.

"The only solution that was really in place before was headphones. You knew if you saw headphones on someone, you left them alone," he said. "The power of the red glow [of the MyFocus button] stopping people when I'm deep in working on a proposal or writing up a contract and just need to get it done because I have a meeting coming up – I've actually seen it stop people in my peripheral vision."

Mr. Crowe said the tool is especially useful since moving his team to a larger office, nearly doubling its size in just over a year.

"I'd say [interruptions] would definitely be, from my standpoint as management, in the top three or four challenges," he said.

"The cost of distractions is something that we have no way to quantify right now – we have no idea what the cost of an open environment is, we have no idea of what the cost of people tapping one another on the shoulder is – but it's something we're hoping to solve."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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