Most office workers spend an average of two hours a day doing unplanned tasks, according to Sheridan Institute’s Edward Sykes.
These work interruptions are associated with:
- Disrupted progress toward tasks completion,
- Reduced task focus,
- Longer task completion time,
- Increased errors, according to Rutgers’ Quintus Jett and Jennifer George of Rice University.
Unplanned tasks decrease productivity and are characterized by:
- Intrusions – Unplanned interactions initiated by others: Synchronous communication including instant message, phone call, or a coworkers visiting to talk,
- Distractions – Unplanned focus change from a task to environmental conditions like other conversations,
- Breaks – Unscheduled 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.
Unplanned workplace interruptions are increasingly prevalent due to rising incidence of:
- Open and collaborative workspaces,
- Technological interruptions,
Open space floor plans increase unplanned interruptions, perceived stress, and “cognitive fatigue,” due to greater noise levels and reduced privacy for employees.
These factors also reduce employees’ job satisfaction, found Carnegie Mellon’s Sheldon Cohen and E. M. De Croon and team of University of Amsterdam.
Synchronous communications are more disruptive than asynchronous communications, which allow response at a convenient time and mitigate the negative impact of task-shifting on cognitive load and stress level, noted University of Texas’s Julie Rennecker and Lindsey Godwin, now of Champlain College.
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 suggested that employees:
-“Batch” communication to check email and returning phone calls at specified intervals,
-Block technology pop-ups, alerts, sounds to avoid startling interruptions,
-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,
-Take active breaks, such as walking outside to breathe outdoor air,
-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.
A counterpoint argument is that task interruptions provide benefits, proposed by Jett and George.
The argued that unplanned and planned interruptions :
- Prevent widespread rework when employees alert colleagues to a work discrepancy or error,
- Increase productivity during repetitive or well-learned tasks that may lead to boredom, errors, or lost task focus.
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