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Productivity, interrupted

Vijay Ramachandran | March 20, 2014
A study, conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that “workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ”.

“Being constantly the hub of a network of potential interruptions provides the excitement and importance of crisis management. As well as the false sense of efficiency in multitasking, there is the false sense of urgency in multi-interrupt processing.” —Michael Foley

A few months ago, I tracked each time I was interrupted at work. I did this not for a day or a week; I maintained a record over an entire month. I clocked in a text or a phone or a colleague walking into my cabin or an e-mail alert or a post alert on our collaboration platform once every 13 minutes! Each time I was disturbed it wasn’t exactly easy to regain my chain of thought and go right back to what I was doing.

A study, conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that “workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ”. Big deal, right? Then consider that the study found that interruptions at work lowered IQ by as much as ten points, while smoking marijuana regularly, caused only a four point drop in intelligence! Pointing to the ‘infomania’ in today’s work environment another study has discovered that organizations employing knowledge workers are greatly impacted by information overload. Infomania, the studies authors observe, is the mental state of continuous stress and distraction caused by the combination of queued messaging overload and incessant interruptions. In one organization, the authors found that staff “averaged 11 minutes on any one “working sphere” before switching to another altogether.” This extreme fragmentation of work resulted in a severe cumulative time loss, with some estimates as high as 25 percent of the work day. Their research found employees in a chronic state of mental overload in practically every company and organization in the industrialized world. An increasing volume of research holds the open-plan office the biggest culprit responsible for interrupted productivity.

The buzz is getting so strong that it recently led to an article in The New Yorker magazine titled The Open-Office Trap. Just a minute, wasn’t the open-plan office with few or no cabins designed to promote collaboration, transparency and greater team-work? Well, it does do all of that, but with lower levels of productivity and creativity. Organizational psychologist Matthew Davis has found that though open offices led to employees feeling that they were working in a less-formal, more-creative environment, in real term they negatively impacted attention spans, creativity, satisfaction, and, yes, productivity. Research has also pointed to on-job performance rising with proportional to the levels of privacy and the ability to control environmental factors like lighting or temperature.


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