Are distractions not-so distracting after all?

Be honest – in this Yuletide week between Christmas and New Year, it’s often not the most productive one.

With the festivities of the season in full swing, staff might well be at work, but they’ll be more than the usual background distractions at play to divert people’s attention.

Traditional HR and management thinking takes a dim view of people getting constantly distracted. It goes something along these lines: constant distractions break that all-important ‘flow’ – a state of mental efficiency, where work gets done most effectively.

Research seems to back this up with. Even in a non-Christmas week, office distractions are rife and in need to be controlled. The average worker will now check their email 74 times per day. According to research by Gloria Mark, at the University of California, it takes an average of nearly 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) for employees to return to their original task after a specific interruption. Cue a slew of workplace monitoring that seeks to reduce all this to a minimum.

All-told, distractions are bad; they cost time; they cost money.

Needless interruptions cost the average company 6.2 hours’ of productivity per day.

But is it really so bad?

However, could there now be a new narrative forming – that distractions in the workplace are less invasive than once thought?

A new study published in the journal ‘Work & Stress’, by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and Trinity Business School – makes a startling suggestion.

It argues interruptions that distract workers from difficult tasks actually help reduce their stress levels, thus actually helping them perform better.

Their premise makes intellectual sense.

The researchers argue that all too often employees have to exert unnatural levels of self-control to remain focused on their tasks. But in doing do they suggest, it becomes oppressive and has the opposite effect.

The academics there argue that work-related self-control depletes employees’ natural regulatory responses, which in turn impairs work effectiveness. Of note it says: “We argue that a lack of regulatory resource availability impairs employees’ ability to “think outside the box” – to generate creative ideas at work.”

In other words it’s a lack of interruption not only compresses people to always working, but it stifles their ability to be creative too.

Interruptions can be positive

In challenging orthodox thinking, the researcher argues that if staff are allowed regular ‘positive interventions’ – ie interruptions – (such as watching a funny YouTube clip a colleague might share), it helps staff overcome this ennui.

So confident were they that they decided to test it.

Nearly 100 workers were asked to gauge the level of self-control they had to exert at work over two weeks.

Some were given ‘positive micro interventions’ – such as being given texts, videos or stories to break their day – and they were asked to rate how it made them feel about doing their work.

It concluded that such interruptions counteracted the “the adverse consequences of daily self control demands on work related outcomes by buffering negative effects on employees’ regulatory resource availability.”

The implications are huge

It’s clear that the implications of this study could be huge – notably that it’s better for mental health (and thus engagement and productivity) if there is more levity and interruption in the office as opposed to being constantly heads-down.

Says Vera Schweitzer, WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management: “Trying to stay calm after reading an annoying email, for example, is typically depleting for employees. Consequently, they might struggle to demonstrate self-control throughout the rest of their workday, which, in turn, hampers their engagement, creativity, and behavior toward their colleagues.”

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She adds: “This is where positivity comes into play: Watching a funny video increases feelings of positivity. These positive emotions allow employees to protect their regulatory resources even after dealing with resource-consuming self-control demands. In turn, this positively affects their effectiveness at work.”

Interruptions should actively be encouraged

Not only are interruptions good, says Schweitzer, but:employers and employees should actively consider incorporating more of them into everyday working life.”

This could come – she suggests, in the form of “a short funny videos via a daily newsletter or by posting a ‘joke of the day’ on the intranet.”

She adds: “By doing so, employers can help mitigate the negative effects of self-control demands.”

New thinking needed?

So where does all this leave traditional thinking that all interruptions are costly?

‘Costly’ it seems is the operative word. Costly in terms of hard-and-fast minutes-in-a-day lost, or costly to people’s mental capacity?

In a world where outputs ought to matter more than pure inputs (ie hours-in), common sense would suggest that anything that helps maintain people’s mental resilience should be applauded.

Common sense does – of course – also imply that excessive messing about at work can’t be good either. But, if the right level of balance can be struck, it seems having a healthy middle ground is better than having either extreme.

The researchers did note that their study was limited, and could not – for example – gauge how much interruptions impact something like ‘motivation’.

But it nevertheless added that this is a new a fertile ground for further research.

So, next time you see staff peering over someone’s screen, watching a clip of some cats, maybe just reflect that this isn’t costing time; rather it’s boosting people’s coping mechanisms, and allowing them to have a better, more productive day.

What traditional research says about interruptions:

  • Some 98% of the workforce say they are interrupted at least three or four times a day
  • Employees in knowledge-intensive professions are interrupted an average of 15 times per hour
  • Employee report that their work is most frequently interrupted by e-mails, on average 3.3 times an hour
  • Workers are now interrupted once every 11 minutes by tweets, Whatsapp messages or Facebook messages
  • Distractions can lead to committing twice as many errors as usual.
  • For every single interruption of an employee, it added 15- 24% more time to the task – depending on the complexity
  • 71% of people report frequent interruptions when they’re working.
  • People spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before they’re interrupted
  • Employees in cubes are interrupted 29% more often than people in private offices

 

Peter Crush is the interim editor of TLNT. He’s an award-winning journalist based in London, and he writes exclusively about the ever-changing world of work.

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