Cracking Down On Workplace Interruptions

Too many interruptions is terrible for productivity, but office culture often forces people to be constantly available. Incessant chatter may make the office feel buzzy, but complicated tasks often require some peace and quiet.

How many times have you been distracted from work because of a co-worker interrupting you? Has the “open door policy” culture gone too far? There’s a good case to be made that too many interruptions through the workday is terrible for productivity. Availability for colleagues who want a quick chat is important, both for the work as well as the camaraderie, but businesses may want to make sure that every once in a while it’s acceptable for people to put up a “do not disturb” sign.
Staff can lose several hours of their productive time every day to interruptions, which results in delays, frustrations, as well as lost profits for the company. A recent study from Basex Research suggests that interruptions cost more than $550 billion a year in the US alone. Separate studies that ask people just how much time they lose every day from people dropping by with requests or chats (some work-related and some not!) routinely come up with staggering numbers: 40% to 60% of people’s most productive time is lost. People also make more mistakes after an interruption, found a study in ‘The Journal of Experimental Psychology’. An interruption of just 2.8 seconds triggered double the number of errors when people were asked to identify which letters came first in the alphabet.
The problem is that a five-minute interruption doesn’t take just five minutes. There’s a hidden cost in lost time because it takes a while to get back to what you were doing. First you have to remember what you were doing, then gather your thoughts, find your place again, and most importantly, get back into it. It takes 15 minutes to get back to the same intense focus as before the interruption – a state known as “flow”, according to Tom DeMarco, co-author of productivity book ‘Peopleware’. This estimate was based on an 800-employee study done for the book.
A separate study found that people don’t tend to get right back to challenging tasks after an interruption, usually doing something else first. “It takes effort to get back into it. That work is aversive, so you start checking your email,” Erik Altmann, psychology professor at Michigan State University, told The‘ Wall Street Journal’. In other words, if someone interrupts you while you’re doing something you don’t really want to be doing, you’ll find it even harder to get back into it.
The good news is that the rise of office online communities [LINK TO PIECE] should make it easier to signal to colleagues when you’re in dire need of a couple of uninterrupted hours to bust through an important report. And contrary to what people like to think, email isn’t actually the baddie of office interruptions, as people actually find it easier to ignore electronic messages (or at least they can turn off notifications for a while). Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than email or phone calls, according to a study in the journal ‘Organization Studies’.
Often the problem is that employees are at the mercy of office culture when it comes to handling interruptions, meaning it’s up to bosses to create an environment where it’s okay to signal a need for quiet every now and again. Office culture also dictates whether people tend to jump out of their seats every time they have a question for someone, or whether they send an email. While people running around “touching base” with colleagues may make the office feel buzzy, the research on interruptions suggest this probably isn’t a good way to get any actual work done.
Dedicating a “quiet room” is one solution to this issue, especially in open plan offices. While people will still be available most of the time, there’s at least the option of going to sit in empty meeting rooms or corners when they have something important to do. For someone being interrupted, one trick is to tell the interrupter you’ll be with them in a couple of minutes. Letting them know you’re busy and also giving you time to jot down a few lines to preserve your train of thought. Last but not least, there’s the trusty old headphones trick –  probably the most common way of signalling that you’re in the zone. And remember, no one will know if there’s no music playing.
Did you know that the way your office is painted could also be affecting the way your employees work? Check out this blog post to find out more.