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August 7, 2013 | Volume 7 | Number 7
August 7, 2013
By Stacy M. Baer and Larissa K. Barber, PhD
You sit down to finally address that nagging task that was technically due a week ago. As you get started on the task, your phone rings. On the other line is a colleague with whom you haven’t spoken in some time. After spending five minutes catching up and five minutes addressing the reason for the call, you finally return to orienting yourself back to the initial task.
However, you notice two new email notifications on your computer, one of which is marked urgent. As you are reading this “urgent” email (not as urgent as you would have thought), a colleague drops by your cubicle to chat about her cat. Fifteen minutes later, you manage to end the conversation and return to your task. As you finally start focusing and making progress, an instant message notification pops up on your computer from another colleague asking about lunch plans. Surprised, you realize much of your morning has passed and you have made little progress on your initial task.
If this sounds like a typical day for you, you are not alone. For many office workers, an average of two hours per day is spent addressing unplanned tasks (Sykes, 2011). Distracted workers are unable to focus, take longer to work and make more errors than employees provided with an environment that protects them from such interruptions. In this article, we discuss common sources of interruptions in the modern workplace and provide tips to help employees and employers manage interruptions at work.
All Interruptions Are Not Created Equal
Interruptions are formally conceptualized as “occurrences that delay organizational members as they attempt to make progress on work tasks,” which essentially break the continuity of work flow (Jett & George, 2003, p. 494). However, interruptions can take different forms:
Researchers generally agree that interruptions have mostly negative outcomes for employees. However, there are potential benefits of interruptions (Jett & George, 2003). For example, if an employee is performing a task incorrectly, an interruption is necessary in order to alert the employee to the discrepancy between the right and wrong way to perform the task. Furthermore, breaks are generally thought of as positive because they are predictable and controllable. In addition, for certain work situations, such as those where the task is repetitive or well-learned, social interruptions may actually increase productivity (Jett & George, 2003).
The unplanned nature of intrusions and distractions is what primarily differentiates them from other pauses in the work flow. Unplanned interruptions are perceived to be out of the employee’s control, which further intensifies his or her cognitive fatigue (Cohen, 1978). For employees, this translates to a tendency toward a simpler decision-making style (Pocheptsova, 2009). Thus, it is beneficial for organizations to identify ways of helping employees have more control over work interruptions, such as breaks, and find ways of reducing sources of unplanned interruptions, such as intrusions and distractions.
Common Sources of Interruptions
There are several sources of disruptive interruptions within the workplace that are becoming more and more prevalent.
Managing Workplace Interruptions
In general, any unmanaged workplace environment in which employees must work on both individual and collaborative tasks will result in a typically interrupted workflow experience for employees (Perlow, 1999). Many interruptions, especially distractions, are often initiated (or even just enabled) by the employees themselves. Research suggests that individuals’ should manage their workflow through strategies such as time management and boundary setting (Oldham, Kulik, & Stepina, 1991). Strategies may include:
Managing interruptions is not only an employee-level issue; many sources of interruptions stem from organizational practices, policies or idiosyncrasies in work styles based on a particular work group or supervisor. It is important for organizations to set in place policies to synchronize employees’ individual and collaborative tasks in order to minimize interruptions (Perlow, 1999). Employers should carefully examine their practices to determine if there are certain communication or meeting patterns that could be adjusted to reduce negative interruptions, while still maintaining the benefits of positive interruptions. Strategies include:
Interruptions are an increasingly common fact of life in the modern workplace. While some forms of interruptions have benefits, such as breaks as opportunities for respite, in general, interruptions disrupt employees’ workflow and have negative outcomes for the organization. Steps can be taken to reduce this negative effect on employees. Individual employees can enforce boundaries around their workflow to a certain extent to protect against the negative effect of interruptions. However, in order to minimize the negative effects of interruptions, organizations should maintain norms and policies in which interruptions are actively managed. In this way, the benefits of technology use and collaboration are maximized while their downsides are minimized.
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