Interruptions undermine workplace focus and productivity

Constant digital interruptions add to mental stress, erode concentration and destroy workplace productivity.

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If your working day is constantly interrupted by the “ding” of incoming texts and emails, there is a solution: hit the mute button. But while this sounds good in theory, it’s not always practical. Some jobs simply require responses in real time so switching off is not an option.

Then there’s the small matter of “fomo” – fear of missing out – which makes a lot of people very uncomfortable about silencing their devices.

A sort of halfway house for those who do not need to be always on is the practice of protected hours. There are a few different interpretations of what protected hours mean. In this case we’re talking about designated blocks of time in the working day during which an organisation or groups within it agree not to interrupt each other. The idea is to leave people time for deep work when they can concentrate fully on a particular task without getting distracted.

Another take on protected hours is what Dropbox calls “core collaboration hours” which also involves a designated block of time. However, in this case it’s the period set aside for getting things done that typically need interactions with others. For example, video conferencing, meetings and calls. This leaves the rest of the working day largely clear for thought, focused work and other tasks.

There are numerous time and motion studies that show how continuous interruptions affect focus and productivity. They also disrupt flow (which in workplace parlance means absorption in a task). And constant digital interruptions are particularly problematic as they increase the mental stress load.

When asked how much of their working day is lost to interruptions, people are usually out by some margin but the prevailing estimate for how long we spend checking and responding to work emails is two hours a day. Overchecking one’s email adds another 21 minutes to the tally and it seems professionals are particularly avid email checkers. They scan their inboxes every 37 minutes. This adds up to an average of 15 checks for those working a nine-hour day.

Pinning down the amount of time spent texting and using in-office messaging channels is more difficult, but Slack estimates that its users spend about 90 minutes per day actively using its service.

When it comes to our phones, it’s trickier to separate personal from work-related usage so the figures available are broader. However, research by Estonian-based cloud communications company Dexatel shows that more than 80 per cent of people keep notifications switched on for receiving SMS messages while 35 per cent of phone users say they are always available via SMS. The most used feature on smartphones is texting and the average amount time people spend checking their phones for messages is around 46 minutes per day.

Hybrid and remote working have upped the pace of digital communication. And this is why companies such as Dropbox (which operates a virtual-first work policy) have begun introducing strategies to make it easier for employees to manage the interruptions overload.

“From living our virtual-first model, we know that, without clear guidance and frameworks, flexible work can make it difficult to set boundaries and allocate time for deep focus. As employees rely more on virtual tools and communication apps to get their work done, the more they struggle with endless notifications and the ‘noise’ of modern work,” says Caroline Nangle, vice-president for HR business partners teams at Dropbox. She adds that, in her company’s experience, unnecessary meetings are one of the biggest obstacles to productivity.

“This is why we’ve embraced core collaboration hours,” she says. “These are four-hour time blocks, reserved for real-time collaborative work and teams can adapt these based on the time zones they most interact with. Outside of these blocks, employees are empowered to design their own workday while carving out time for solo-focused work.”

By encouraging employees to remove all unnecessary meetings from their calendars and to be more intentional about when they come together, Nangle says Dropbox employees have been able to “shift from ‘all-day syncs’ (people communicating in real time) to an ‘async by default’ mindset [people communicating in their own time] which has brought a more productive structure to the working day. As a result, the majority (70 per cent) of our employees say they are now using non-linear workdays to adopt more fluid schedules.”

However, Nangle adds that in order for an async culture to thrive, it requires the right tech.

“Workplace chat apps have been great for collaboration but they are also one of the top disrupters of productive work around the world. According to a recent Economist Impact study, commissioned by Dropbox, half of the time knowledge workers spend on chat messages is wasted each day,” she says.

“That’s why businesses must be intentional when it comes to evaluating the types of tools that will enable people to be more effective. More tech isn’t necessarily better tech. Instead, employees need access to tools that can simplify their workflows, automate routine tasks and connect all of their content into one easily searchable place.

“This is where AI will play a pivotal role. Its ability to search and summarise content, not only in text form but also with image and video, will enable employees to quickly get the information they need. Meanwhile, AI’s ability to remove the hassle of manually searching, organising and carrying out routine tasks will enable people to overcome the friction that can come from working remotely.”


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