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Breaking News: Office Distractions Cause Lost Productivity

By Craig Roth | September 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

Information workFunAttention Management

In the September 10th, 2013 WSJ article “The Biggest Office Interruptions Are..not what most people think.”, Sue Shellenbarger makes two points: offices have lots of interruptions, and these interruptions result in a surprising amount of lost productivity.

First I’ll tackle the point about offices having lots of interruptions. Sure, I spent a decade in a corporate office and the distractions and interruptions were everywhere.

But it’s not like the other options are a garden of tranquility. I work at home and yesterday my toddler discovered a pair of hard-soled flats that she slipped on and clomped back and forth on the wood floor in the kitchen above my office. I’ll take a pair of twentysomethings chatting about their weekend plans over that any day. And at least they won’t break into tears when I tell them to be quiet like my daughter did.

And don’t even get me started on working out of a coffee shop. Trying to concentrate among yells of ““GrandeMochaNonfatCarmelMochiatoHaveaGREATday!” is quite annoying as I found during my 3rd place experiment posted here.

Now, to the point that interruptions result in a surprising amount of lost productivity.

They do. But what’s discussed less often is that work is changing. Repetitive, single-focus tasks are getting outsourced or automated. What remains involves complex coordination of a non-routine nature. This work requires more time slicing and undefined (tacit) process, and more collaboration with others. This means workers have to interrupt others and be interrupted more, while juggling more, shorter sub-tasks. Accordingly, adaptation becomes as important as efforts to eliminate the interruptions.

The trick is identifying which types of tasks and roles are more interruptable than others. The article provides a good example: “Nurses at 24 Kaiser Permanente hospitals wear bright-colored sashes or vests to prevent interruptions while they are preparing medications for patients.”

On the other extreme, it is maddening to encounter a customer service or salesperson that is not currently engaged with another person, but still refuses to be interrupted with a question while they go about organizing a shelf or typing away at a point of sale device right in front of me. This happens to me at hotel reception desks more often than I’d like.

The article mentions a concept I’ve written about as “placeholding“: “One way people can dive back into a task more quickly and reduce errors, research shows, is by bookmarking their place, marking the next step with a large, bright symbol such as a red arrow.”

The article also delves into some commonly used stats about how long people work before being interrupted, how long it takes them to get back to the task, etc. I don’t deny there is a major drag on productivity caused by interruptions, but these stats are often abused. For example, the 25.5 minutes it takes to return to a task doesn’t mean nothing gets done for that long (or, worse yet, 25.5+the 15 minutes it says you need to get back up to speed). It means other tasks may be getting done during that time. Again, you have to know what type of work someone is doing to know whether these figures are very bad or just could be optimized a bit.

Anyways, writing this blog post distracted me from the document review I’m doing (probably for about the 25.5 minutes the studies say!). I think it was a productive distraction (if you like this post!) and hopefully it won’t take me 15 minutes to get back into the document since I stopped at a good point and used placeholding to mark my spot. On the other hand, a frappacino sounds good right about now …

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