Hold On… The Productivity and Employee Engagement Cost of Interruptions

By Jessica Wishart

Good morning! Time to get to work. You walk into your office, get your cup of coffee, sit down, fire up the computer and start your morning routine. Maybe your first task is checking email, or maybe mornings are your most productive time and this is when you planned to get your biggest project done for the day. So you start on that proposal or dig into that spreadsheet, and only a few minutes pass before your first interruption of the day. Your coworker stops by your open floor plan office (great for collaboration, terrible for concentration) just to chat, you get an internal instant message from a colleague with a question, your assistant walks in with a major problem for you to solve, the phone rings and it’s your biggest customer, you see that Twitter notification in the corner of your screen and click over to see what that was about, you suddenly remember something you thought about last night right before bed that you have to do now before you forget it again… The potential for interruption in our current work environment is exponential. In fact, in the time it took for me to write this article, I was interrupted (by coworkers, emails, instant messages, or just my own distractions) at least ten times. 

20160525135247-startup-team-coworkers-teamwork-office-brainstorming-ideas-corporate-meetingKnowledge workers switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds according to a study conducted by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine. Mark’s study also found that it can take 23 minutes to get back to the original task following an interruption. Yikes! While it might seem harmless to pause what you’re doing and help a colleague in need, think about the hit your productivity is taking if you can’t get back into what you were working on for almost half an hour! Surprisingly, Mark’s study found that most people worked faster to compensate for interrupted time so it usually doesn’t take longer to get the task done. However, while the work still gets accomplished, interruptions were found to cause significantly more stress and more frustration, and they required workers to use more mental effort to accomplish the same task. The psychological cost of interruptions is actually higher than the productivity cost. And, if employees find work mentally exhausting and stressful, they will not be engaged or satisfied in the long run. 

In an interview with Fast Company about her study, Mark cautioned that our way of working with constant interruptions and switching topics frequently throughout the workday makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for workers to get to creative, deep, innovative thinking. In our modern work environment, it is extremely hard to achieve “flow.” So, while workers can still accomplish the same day-to-day tasks (albeit with more stress), they probably aren’t able to generate new ideas, create exciting content, or figure out complex problems if their workday is full of interruptions. Often, workers feel most engaged and satisfied at work when they are able to achieve this “zone” where they can accomplish something meaningful.  

However, Mark’s study found that not all interruptions are created equal. She found that interruptions that were directly related to the task at hand could actually be beneficial; "If you're working on task A and somebody comes in and interrupts you about exactly that task, people report that the interruption is positive and helps them think about task A.” She also found that short interruptions that don’t take your mental energy away from the topic at hand are not harmful; something like signing a document in the middle of working on a different task was not found to cause a major disruption. Not surprisingly, the most disruptive interruptions are the ones that require a shift to a completely different topic. Moving your attention and shifting your thinking to something totally new is what causes you to take so long to get back into the task you were originally focused on. 

So, how do you combat the constant interruptions (both external and from ourselves - Mark found that about half of interruptions are “self-interruptions”)? She recommends working from home when possible so you can be more in control of limiting distractions, being disciplined about your web usage, and only checking emails 2-4 times per day. A Wall Street Journal article gave some examples of a few companies using the following strategies to help with workplace interruptions:

  • Abbott Laboratories: Employees were struggling to fit in “real work” between meetings and a constant barrage of emails. They instituted a new practice whereby workers change the mode of communication between cell phone calls, office phone calls, and emails depending on the urgency of the message. Instead of having to read every email as it came in just in case it was something urgent, now workers can relax knowing that if it is truly urgent they will get a phone call. This eased the pressure to interrupt tasks so frequently to monitor emails.
  • eBay: During some meetings, they enforce a “no device” policy. This makes meeting time more effective and efficient by cutting down on distractions for everyone.
  • Intel: Due to keeping up with daily tasks, employees were not getting “heads down” time to think deeply about their work and how to solve problems. The company launched a pilot program in which workers have four hours a week of uninterrupted “think time.” During this time block, they don’t have to respond to emails or attend meetings. This is one reason we so strongly recommend taking time weekly for your think rhythm in which you get out of your office and away from interruptions so that you can think about and work on your business rather than getting sucked into the daily grind.
  • Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex: Only about half of the planes at Robins Air Force Base were being repaired on time because workers were trying to fix them all simultaneously; working on too many tasks on each plane lead them to be disorganized and inefficient. They found that having only a few planes in the maintenance dock at a time limited distractions; “fewer projects led to better focus and more on-time results.” Using Rhythm to plan your quarter and provide focus on only a few priorities at a time can have a similar impact on your productivity.

Some of you might be reading this thinking - “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but that doesn’t apply to me and my team! We’re rock stars!” There is another school of thought on interruptions. In an HBR article, CEO Douglas Conant stated the counter-argument; “One of the most powerful lessons I have learned in my over thirty five years of leadership experience is that these thousands of little interruptions aren’t keeping you from the work, they are the work.” Similarly, researchers Vangelis Souitaris and B. M. Marcello Maestro found that "Under some circumstances, top management teams perform better when they accept—even relish—interruptions.” 

To me, it sounds like the bottom line is the person, not the environment. Choose your approach to interruptions - are they rocks in your shoe to be avoided at all costs? Are they draining you of mental energy and sucking the creativity, productivity and engagement out of you and your team? Or, are they simply a part of the modern working world that you’ll have to learn to take advantage of in a productive way? Like so many things in life, your outlook will determine the outcome. If you choose to view interruptions as opportunities to become a better leader and serve those around you, that’s great. Just be sure to balance that approach with some quiet time in your workweek so that you aren’t too stressed and overwhelmed to think clearly when it matters. 


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images