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Coping With Distractions

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I was recently surprised when I saw a news item noting that the owner of a plant of 100 employees in a hoop-crazed region of the country feared that the start of the NCAA tournament might drain worker productivity and lead to profit loss. A Yahoo! survey was said to report that 14 percent of college basketball fans planned to call in sick during the NCAA tournament and others were planning their vacations during that time.

Most championship sporting events have moved to prime time, but the NCAA tournament is an exception.

Management at this company was concerned because the event can be accessed on company computers or hand-held devices. Apparently Twitter, Facebook, smartphones and live streaming are the source of most workplace distractions. The worst time period for “March Madness” distraction is probably the first Thursday and Friday when the heavy action occurs during midday work hours. Some companies with numerous company computers block websites that show the tournament during this time.

Fortunately for most collision shop owners, technicians have limited access to shop computers, but handheld devices are another matter. These days it seems impossible to see someone on the street not looking at or texting on his or her smartphone. In many industries and companies this is a major source of distraction and lost productivity, especially with younger employees. Body shops are probably less affected by this craze because employees tend to be older or more mature, but the prevalence of these handheld devices means that the temptation to check for messages frequently may also affect the collision repair industry eventually.

If a shop owner knows his or her employees are deeply into college basketball and the NCAA tournament, it might be advisable to go with the flow and provide some limited access to the event. Alternating work breaks and providing a TV set in the break room showing the event could satisfy a certain level of interest. This would never satisfy die-hard fans, but most techs would be OK with it. And even though betting pools are technically illegal, realistically everyone knows they will go on. A shop might be able to reduce this concern by providing a shop-sponsored, nonmonetary pool that awards a gift certificate. Some problems could also be avoided by an advance notice in the shop of what would be expected during the upcoming tournament.

How serious is the threat to productivity and shop profitability during this time? A while back, an MSN survey revealed that millions of fans planned to dedicate at least one hour of their workday to the first two days of the tournament. If this really happened in a 100-employee shop with, say, 20 percent of the workers distracted at an estimated $20 an hour, in two days the shop would lose less than $1,000. But we all know that this isn’t the real loss. In today’s highly technical repair shop, distractions can mean faulty repairs, re-dos, customer complaints and customers lost. Distractions can also cause accidents and injuries. And perhaps the worst side effect could be called contagion of distraction: Employees who normally wouldn’t lose focus and get involved in the use of distracting hand-held devices, noticing frequent use by other employees, could eventually succumb to the temptation.

Shops may be fortunate that most employees are not on computers much of the time. The usual distractions, such as surfing the Web, checking email or being involved in social media networking sites, don’t occur much with technicians. Office personnel may be more affected by these elements, but most shops have fewer office personnel, and the rapid pace of the collision repair business leaves little time for these distractions. But there is a longer-term reason for concern. As the older employees age out, the younger ones replacing them will be products of this “always on” smartphone generation. Simple abstinence policies that may be appropriate with current shop crews are not likely to fly in the future.

The “March Madness” distraction might reach across generations, but the lure of instant gratification via hand-held wizardry may be irresistible to the up-and-coming generation of collision repair employees. A recent Inc. magazine article suggests considering a new management structure where employees are permitted more direct input in company decisions and policies. Who knows, they might come up with a better way to retain productivity and profits while still tuning in to the big games.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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