The ‘Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad’ Effects of Office Interruptions

Did you know the average office worker is interrupted every three minutes and that it can take them 23 minutes just to get back to where they left off?

Efficiency and workflow consultant Edward G. Brown has studied the harmful effects of interruptions like these on office productivity, job satisfaction, performance quality, company profits and personal satisfaction—and this is what he found:

Through my research, I had discovered that even highly disciplined, focused people routinely lose three to five hours a day to “time bandits” (people who interrupt them, however innocently). My conclusions were crystallizing, and I was beginning to set them down in a book. Then an uncomfortable realization began to dawn on me….

I would give one or more of my excellent employees an important, urgent assignment, and off they’d go—excited, committed and focused. But the next thing you know, I would call them with another idea, question or assignment.  I’d hang up, satisfied that I had cleared my agenda nicely. But how do you suppose they felt? 

Deflated, discouraged, distracted—that’s how. Abruptly pulled off a project they were deeply immersed in and excited about. Forced to switch their attention to another subject that their boss was suddenly enthused about and respond with the eagerness that good employees bring to the boss’s enthusiasms.

By interrupting them, I was paving the way for all those interruption ills that I was writing about. I was being a time bandit.

So what? you might be saying. You’re the boss—shouldn’t your priorities set the agenda for your team? Here’s “so what”:

First, brief interruptions are not innocuous. They are not even brief. Their apparent brevity makes the time bandit feel innocent, but interruptions, no matter how quick, do damage.

The employees were pulled off task for however long I kept them engaged. And when I finished, do you suppose they picked up right where they left off?  No, they had to re-immerse themselves in the project, remember where they were and what they had decided to do next, and then hope the inspiration and enthusiasm returned. 

Then they had to quell their frustration at having to regroup, because they had been on a roll and now it feels stale. They had lost momentum, but they’re professionals, so they spend whatever energy it takes to get back to where they were. But fatigue trails that expenditure of energy, and knowing that they have to make up for lost time causes distress. Distress and fatigue lead to errors, which take even more time to correct.

So by stealing my employees’ time, I was ruining their work, all while thinking what a great boss I was to engage with them so freely. 

Next, I was creating a productivity and profit drain. Hiring people means paying for their time. All that time that they wasted trying to get back on track after I derailed them? I was paying extra for it! Whether in overtime, or in keeping overworked people happy via raises and bonuses, I was spending more to get less.

Last, I was setting a terrible example, modeling a culture at odds with my deepest held beliefs about individuals, performance, time and satisfaction. If I could pick up the phone and interrupt busy people at my convenience, why should anybody else have any compunction about doing the same? A culture of interruptions thrives where the boss treats the time and concentration of his people like a cheap commodity. 

Think you might be guilty of being a time bandit, too? Here are a few tips:

1. Motivate yourself to change by calculating the cost of your habit.

Estimate, conservatively, that each employee loses two hours a day to interruptions. Add up those unproductive dollars per hour. Or calculate it this way: If my workplace is typical, that means employees are losing three to five hours a day. So, if we totally eliminated interruptions, we could get by with about 30–40 percent fewer employees—or the ones we have could produce more work. The point is, put a pencil to it, so that when your determination falters, you can remember why you must change.

2. Check your privilege at the door.

Are you unintentionally asserting executive privilege to demand the attention of your employees without first considering their needs? If so, changing won’t be easy at first. You wouldn’t be the boss if you weren’t willing to stick your neck out, push forward, overcome obstacles and take risks where others might not. So learning to temper your enthusiasms and time your forays takes some serious introspection and practice.

3. Don’t go it alone.

Talk to your employees about how you mean to change and why. Enlist their cooperation. Teach them how to respond to you when you backslide (because you will. I do, and I literally “wrote the book”).

Remember, they still will never say, “No, boss, I’m too busy to be interrupted by you!” You must help them with ideas for deterring you politely in a way that serves both of you, like, “Sure, boss, I can do that now, but I was actually just a couple of hours from finishing the report you asked for yesterday. It’s pretty complicated, so we might both be better off if I wrapped it up first. Then I will call you by, say, 3:00 at the latest, ready to give your new idea my undivided attention. Will that work for you?”

4. Once you have broken your interruption habit, look around. Are there other corporate contributors to the interruption culture?

Today’s popular open floor plan can contribute, particularly if there are not sufficient quiet places and rules about respecting one another’s need for concentration. Another is excessive attention to various interruptive devices and alerts. Again, enlist employees in coming up with the best environment for their concentration needs.

Is your workplace toxic? Learn 4 ways you can change the work culture to one that’s inspired.


Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had and co-founder of the #1 firm in culture change management consulting and training for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group.

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