Managing Workplace Interruptions

Edward Sykes

Edward Sykes

Many office workers spend an average of two hours per day doing unplanned tasks, according to Sheridan Institute’s Edward Sykes.
As a result, work interruptions:

The most corrosive interruptions are unplanned, a feature of most work disruptions:

  • Intrusions – Unplanned interactions initiated by others like synchronous communication – instant message, phone call, or a coworker visiting the work area to talk
  • Distractions – Unplanned focus change from a task to environmental conditions like other employees’ conversations
  • Breaks – Unscheduled or planned task stoppage to rest, visit the restroom, have a meal
  • Discrepancy Detection – Unplanned task stoppage to correct errors or redirect work effort toward a revised objective

A related blog post noted that workplace interruptions are increasingly prevalent due to rising incidence of:

  • Open and Collaborative Workspaces
  • Technological interruptions
  • Meetings
Sheldon Cohen

Sheldon Cohen

Open space floor plans increase unplanned interruptions, perceived stress, and “cognitive fatigue,” due to increased noise levels and reduced privacy of employees.
In addition, Carnegie Mellon’s Sheldon Cohen and E. M. De Croon and team of University of Amsterdam found that these factors reduce employees’ job satisfaction.

Julie Renneker

Julie Renneker

Synchronous communication demand immediate response and are more disruptive than asynchronous communication, which enables response at a convenient time and mitigates the negative impact of task-shifting on cognitive load and stress level.

Lindsey Godwin

Lindsey Godwin

Julie Rennecker, now of University of Texas and Lindsey Godwin, now of Champlain College, suggest the obvious benefits of using asynchronous communication when no discussion is required because this communication practice reduces task loading and stress.

Steven Rogelberg

Steven Rogelberg

University of North Carolina’s Steven Rogelberg and team confirmed assumptions that meetings are more productive when scheduled in advance with a clearly-stated purpose, desired outcome and agenda, with norms to begin and end at the stated times.

Greg Oldham

Greg Oldham

Common-sense strategies to mitigate the impact of work disruptions include time management and boundary setting, according to Tulane’s Greg Oldham, Carol Kulik of University of South Australia and Florida State University’s Lee Stepina.
 They suggest that employees:

Carol Kulik

Carol Kulik

Lee Stepina

Lee Stepina

-“Batch” communication to check email and returning phone calls at specified intervals

-Block technology pop-ups, alerts, sounds to avoid unplanned and startling interruptions

James Tyler

James Tyler

-Organize tasks around energy peaks, with tasks requiring the most effort and concentration earlier in the workday and after a break, also advocated by Purdue’s James Tyler and Kathleen Burns of University of Wisconsin

Kathleen Burns

Kathleen Burns

-Take active breaks, such as walking outside to breather outdoor air  

John Aiello

John Aiello

Schedule interruption-free intervals, to increase perceived control over interruptions and reduce stress, also cited by Duke’s Andrew Carton and John Aiello of Rutgers

-Create “work-arounds” for  open space floor plans by
.Installing higher cubicle dividers
.Providing noise-cancelling headphones
.Offering white noise machines to reduce ambient notice
.Designating reservable private work rooms for audio privacy

-Reduce meeting frequency to focus on issues that require group discussion, consensus, commitment

Quintus Jett

Quintus Jett

Quintus Jett, now of Rutgers and Rice University’s Jennifer George offer a counterpoint to the negative impact of work interruptions.
They list benefits to task interruption, such as:

  • Jennifer George

    Jennifer George

    Preventing widespread rework when employees alert colleagues to a work discrepancy or error

  • Increasing productivity during repetitive or well-learned tasks that may lead to boredom, errors, or lost task focus.

-*How do you reduce the negative impact of workplace interruptions?

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One thought on “Managing Workplace Interruptions

  1. Pingback: How the Brain Perceives Time So You Can Manage Time Demands, not Time | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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