"Management is a series of interruptions interrupted by interruptions"

- sign on the door of my first boss at Bell Labs
John B Smelcer, MBA, PhD

Interruptions reduce our productivity and give us less time to get work done. Individuals can take charge of their own environment, disabling technology and telling co-workers "Do Not Disturb." Managers can also reduce needless interruptions by organizing the larger work environment and encouraging a culture of focused time alternating with collaboration time.

Workplace Interruptions and Technology

Interrupted office workerCubicles and open offices; 100 emails per day; office mates talking on the phone; Facebook updates; the lure of websites; Tweets from those you follow. On average, an office worker wastes two to three hours per day (Conner, 2012). It is surprising that any software is ever designed, much less developed into working code. In fact, many software engineers get their work done only at the fringes – early in the day or late in the day when there are fewer distractions.

On average, office workers are interrupted every three minutes, whether from a neighbor's conversation on the latest media-fueled drama or from a quick check on sale items at the local department store (Silverman). Unfortunately, getting back on task takes 23 minutes. No wonder productivity in the office has flattened (Office of National Statistics, 2012). What to do?

Figure 1: Flattening Office Productivity in the UK

Taking Personal Charge of Office Disruptions

Individual changes can also reduce distractions. Individuals can choose to process email just two or three times each day. This batch processing approach is efficient and reduces the number of "you've got mail" distractions per day.

Ideally, no one would interrupt us while we are deep in thought or 'in the flow.' The most obvious move is to close the office door. I'm personally tempted to 'borrow' a Do Not Disturb sign that hangs on a hotel door, especially those in German: . Marriott has a new one that says "In the flow, do not disturb." On the other hand, when we need help with a thorny design problem the right colleague should magically stop by. When pigs fly. Actually, I've always tried to keep a full candy jar in my office to encourage visitors. I also use it to reward colleagues who help me with technical challenges. Until people can read our minds, it is up to us to communicate our needs with clarity.

Electronic distractions require a more subtle approach. Turn off your cell phone (or at least turn the ringer off) and forward your desk phone to voice mail. The hardest to do, but most helpful, is to ignore email. As discussed above, batch process email a few times per day. If you work from home, consider an app that helps you focus, such as SelfControl for Mac or FocalFilter for Windows, which block access to Facebook, Twitter, email and other websites you choose for 90 minutes at a time.

To end an interruption by a visitor, be prepared with a range of subtle and overt cues. Silence can be a powerful way to end a meeting or phone call. Most people will immediately understand that the conversation is over when silence reigns. Only continuous talkers need a more overt cue. Try smiling and saying, "Well, it's been nice talking with you." Or try standing up; that usually works (WikiHow, 2011). If not, then turn away. This can be a bit insulting, but it certainly worked for a professor I knew in grad school. When he turned away from me, I knew it was time to leave his office. If it's your boss or manager who is interrupting, list your current projects and ask which one is the priority.

Management's Role in Managing Disruptions

Managers are sometimes guilty of blurring the lines between work and personal time. We know of one boss who calls at 9:30 pm on a Sunday evening to have an impromptu conference call. Having a smartphone makes us available 24/7 and seems to encourage acting before thinking. We have unconsciously become slaves to our tools.

Corporate tools are managed by IT departments, who already reduce interruptions by blocking access to social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, but also other sources of interruptions, including YouTube and LimeWire. Since most employees BYOD (bring your own device) to work, manager options are limited, but unique approaches have emerged. We know of one small company that banned internal email for a week. While that is a draconian approach to reducing distractions, it helps because it is partnered with another policy: use the office phone. A ringing phone carries urgency, which translates to resolving internal issues quickly.

Social media is a corporate paradox, as it is both essential for reaching customers and a source of interruptions. In a recent survey, 56% of younger employees will not accept a job unless they have access to social media at work, and a third would prefer social media access over a higher salary (Conner, 2012). However 43% of companies ban access to social media on corporate computers and smartphones (SHRM, 2011). I suspect that policies and tools will develop to encourage the use of social media to achieve business goals, yet manage personal use of these same technologies. It happened with email; it will happen with Facebook.

Beyond technology, managers can also control the work environment. Managers can cause office interruptions, or help reduce them. At one extreme we have the irksome Michael Scott from NBC's "The Office." In an environment of excessive meetings, petty arguments, and office politics, little is accomplished and interruptions abound. At the other extreme is a militant environment. Imposed silence rules and talking is verboten. Here the employees are starved for social interaction and turn to the Internet for escape. Or they escape by finding a new job. A happy medium is needed.

As a project manager I have seen the value of some shared work time in the same room as well as focused, private work time. The ideal is not really the midpoint between chaos and silence, but rather a balance based on the individuals and their project. The office staff can discuss and collaborate to find the blend of approaches that will work for the different office personalities. Socialites thrive by working with others. Hermits need isolation to be productive with tasks that require total concentration, interspersed with user-testing or team check-ins. Too much isolated progress on a design develops emotional attachment, which hinders acceptance of feedback and effective team-work. Teams need a blend of silence to be focused, mixed with informal meetings at the water cooler to spark new ideas. The benefits of the 'water cooler effect' are well known in IT environments. The cooler encourages cooperation among IT workers, who are often working in isolation but who benefit from occasional collaboration.

We each need a different environment at different times, and it is the manager's job to understand the employees and the projects and to facilitate this mix of optimum work environments. Institute a quiet time, as IBM and Intel did, but encourage face-to-face contact when too much electronic messaging dominates (Silverthorne, 2010).

Remember to encourage the sharing of victories. Then your office will more often experience the lively silence of focused work, alternating with collaborative insights, punctuated by regular laughter and cheers of accomplishment.

John and Paul


ASTD Staff (2012) Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article

Conner, C. (2012). Employees Really Do Waste Time at Work, Part II

FB (2012). Working Hard or Hardly Working? Statistics about Workplace Productivity. http://www.fabulouslybroke.com/2011/02/working-hard-or-hardly-working-statistics-about-workplace-productivity/

Hughes, S. (2012). I Banned All Internal E-Mails at My Company for a Week, http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2012/10/25/i-banned-all-internal-e-mails-at-my-company-for-a-week/

Office of National Statistics (2012). The Productivity Conundrum, Explanations and Preliminary Analysis, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/elmr/the-productivity-conundrum/explanations-and-preliminary-analysis/art-explanations-and-preliminary-analysis.html

Silverman, Emma (2012). Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article, Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324339204578173252223022388.html?mod=WSJ_Tech_LEFTTopNews

Silverthorne, Sean (2010). Shuuuuttt Uppp! Why Your Company Needs 'Quiet Time'

Society for Human Resource Management (2011). Social Media in the Workplace Survey Findings,

State Compensation Insurance fund (2012). Workplace Distractions,

WikiHow (2011). How to Cope with Office Interruptions, http://www.wikihow.com/Cope-With-Office-Interruptions


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