Me: ‘Hello, my name is Francesco and I have a problem with, ehm, interruptions at work’.
Group: ‘Hello Francesco, and welcome to the productivity at work self-help group!’.
You know what I mean. You’re at your desk and start working on a project. The deadline is dangerously close and ding your attention has been captured by the notification of a new message. You quickly check it and start working again, when the phone rings. Agh! You go back to work, struggling to find a good flow when a colleague arrives and starts telling you a funny story.
You can guess how the story goes on…and this is without considering all the self-generated interruptions: social media, the news, watching cute videos of kittens...
It seems that I’m in good company. According to a recent survey, 71% of people say they’re frequently interrupted when working. So chances are that even you, dear reader, suffer from office work interruptus.
Knowledge and information workers are the ones most at risk of work fragmentations, this is how researchers call switching frequently between tasks and spending a short amount of time on each. According to research, the typical knowledge worker is interrupted, on average, every three minutes (González & Mark, 2004). This is even worse if we consider that resuming interrupted work can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes (Mark, González, & Harris, 2005). The cost of interruptions in knowledge workers has been estimated at about 28 billion wasted man-hours a year in the USA alone (Spira & Feintuch, 2005)!
Communication is by far the main source of distraction at work. Email, chat, and phone calls fight for our attention and steal our precious (and limited) cognitive resources from what the important work.
Of course, communication is not a problem per se. Communication is fundamental for work and improves the quality of the output. Project updates, requests for help, and bouncing ideas and suggestions off each other are not just nuisances, they’re essential parts of knowledge work.
The main problems of communication are the frequency of attention requests and their opacity. You don’t know how important they are until you look at them. Take email overload for example. It has been estimated that the average employee spends 13 hours each week reading and responding to email, this means that about 28% of our work time is spent on a reactive, low-value work (source: Sanebox)! And this does not consider the attention requests coming from instant messaging systems that many organizations employ now for replacing internal email with, and phone calls.
It’s impossible or at least very difficult to automatically filter the important from the trivial, before having accessed the message. You don’t know the exact content of a phone call before you answer it, and also just looking at the number of the caller means interrupting your work. Similarly, when you get notifications of new email or chat messages, you are being distracted before knowing whether the message was critical or just something that can stay safely unread for days.
In an ideal world, only the important and urgent messages should be permitted to disturb you when working. Trivial and not urgent ones should stay silent in your inbox, so you can access them when you have some spare time (for more about evaluating urgency and importance, see the so-called Eisenhower matrix).
Since we do need communication at work, what’s a better way to communicate? How can we reduce the number of interruptions and keep our poor knowledge workers focused and engaged?
Perhaps an obvious answer: educate the employees. Teach them how to use the internal communication systems in a more productive way. Show them how counter productive interruptions can be. Get them to remember a time when they were stressed and rushing to finish a deadline and they kept getting interrupted by low priority matters and help them make changes.
Have you ever heard of the cooperative principle of communication and its four axioms? This principle says that listeners and speakers must act cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood. It has four principles for effective communication:
But for communication being really effective at work, I think that a fifth principle is definitely needed:
Maxim of economy: Start communications only when effectively needed (don’t communicate just because you can).
Following this enhanced version of the cooperative principle should, on paper, greatly reduce the frequency of interruptions at work. Unfortunately, as most of the people who start diets can tell, methods that rely on willpower and self-discipline might have some effects in the short term but are unlikely to work in the long term.
Some organizations have gone so far as to adopt explicit policies to guarantee at least some interruption-free time to their employees. For example, Edward Brown has proposed the ‘Time Locks’, mutual agreements between management and employees that they’ll have a dedicated quiet time to concentrate, without any interruptions. The email and chat are shut down, the phone is silenced, and one is allowed to come to your desk, say, from 14 to 16.
These policies can work when and they are applied to all the workforce and strictly respected. But let just somebody break it once without consequences, and they’ll lose their power. Moreover, research conducted by the Grossman Group shows that both managers and employees don’t usually like to have limited access to their communication systems, and perceive banning email as a wrong approach to email overload. Indeed, as social psychology research showed already many years ago, people don’t like to have their behavioral freedom constrained (psychological reactance(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactance_(psychology), Brehm, 1966). This is why many times limitations to freedom often backfire and lead to a ‘boomerang effect’, in which people are more attracted to the forbidden alternatives due to the introduction of limitations to personal freedom (yes, I’m talking to you, Romeo and Juliet!).
So, although beneficial, these policies risk being badly received and boycotted by the workers themselves - the ones they’re trying to help.
Knowledge workers have been complaining about email overload for many years. To overcome this problem, many organizations have decided to replaced internal email with instant messaging systems, such as Slack or HipChat. The reason is simple: no more messy inboxes, shorter messages, and all your team is there, these tools have been embraced with great enthusiasm.
But here I’ll go against the tide. Don’t get me wrong, I like Slack and I use it every day with my wonderful colleagues at Mindiply. It’s very simple to use and has a great interface, you can start using it literally seconds after having installed it, so I can easily understand why many people fall in love with it.
Yet, it is completely true that many companies have reduced or even got rid of email usage, but have they reduced work interruptions? From many emails to many (many, many) messages: what’s the net gain? Is it really worth switching?
Indeed, after the initial enthusiasm, many companies are starting now to question the real value of this tool. You can now find articles of people complaining that such tools are becoming too invasive and killing productivity, especially as the number of people and channels grow. They are two great articles here and here.
The problem with Slack and other similar tools is that they are tempting. They call themselves ‘business instant messaging systems’, but for us human users they are, well, just group chats. They’re so easy and quick, that is difficult to avoid over-using them, and even a smart usage can quickly escalate into interrupt-driven chit-chat.
Yes, I too admit that many times I first type a message in Slack and only when my finger is about to press the enter button I ask myself whether it was actually relevant for my team...
The popular Nudge theory states that, if you want to make some behaviors more or less likely to be adopted, you should tweaking the context (environment, tools, social aspects) and exploit people’s tendency to follow automatic behavior. This means that how a tool is designed has strong consequences for its actual usage.
What if new business communication tools could be developed following this principle and knowledge of human behavior, in order to minimize clutter and interruption at work? For example, we know that the majority of people never change the default settings of the software they use, so new tools could come with smart defaults, such as providing notifications only for important messages (and of course, you should be free to change these settings whenever you want!). Perhaps business communication tools should make you reflect upon the importance of what you’re sharing each time you use it.
There are nice online services, such as SaneBox, which take care of filtering unimportant emails, Cloze, a relationship manager and Google’s Gmail, which does a good job at improving the organization of your inbox. Not only does it filter the spam, as many other email clients do, but it also automatically moves the many socials and the promotional emails in separate folders, so that your primary inbox is somewhat free from clutter. Moreover, you can turn on desktop notifications for important email only, that is messages that Gmail thinks are relevant for you. The algorithm behind this, which uses a mix of machine learning (i.e., it learns from your behavior) and semantic analysis, is not 100% error-proof, but it works pretty well. Yes, unfortunately, it is not the default setting, but with some clicks, you’ll be virtually free from trivial messages notifications.
Do you use some communication tools that have greatly improved your productivity and cured you of the office work interruptus syndrome? Let us know by writing down a line on firstname.lastname@example.org, at Mindiply we love to receive your feedback!
Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance.
González, V. M., & Mark, G. (2004). Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness: managing multiple working spheres. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120). ACM.
Mark, G., González, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005). No task left behind?: examining the nature of fragmented work. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 321-330). ACM.
Spira, J. B., & Feintuch, J. B. (2005). The cost of not paying attention: How interruptions impact knowledge worker productivity. Report from Basex.