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What can be done to reduce interruptions at work

Inside Business

Posted: June 26, 2008 12:16 a.m.
Updated: August 26, 2008 5:03 a.m.
For many people working in a business, days are filled with activity. At the end of each day, however, it might be difficult to remember what, if anything was actually achieved.

Sure, papers have been pushed around the desk, phone calls made, e-mails sent and meetings attended. Those are activities, not necessarily accomplishments.

A research study conducted in 1995, prior to the explosion of e-mail and instant messaging, suggested that interruptions happen about four times each working hour. Interruptions could be in the form of a telephone call, someone dropping by, or a meeting in a neutral work area such as a break room or hallway. The average duration of an interruption at that time was 2 minutes 11 seconds. Approximately 10 minutes in every hour was being spent dealing with the interruption.

The 1995 study also stated that in just over 55 percent of the cases the person interrupted returned to their original activity - almost half did not. When they did not return to their original activity, it was discovered that the person had most likely been interrupted yet again, were working on the previous interruption or had moved to another task.

A 2006 study suggested that office workers in the United States get interrupted on the job as often as 11 times an hour with a typical manager being interrupted six times an hour. A second study conducted during this same time period found the average cubicle worker was interrupted more than 70 times a day. A third study found office distractions take up 2.1 hours of the average day (28 percent of work hours) with each employee taking an average of five minutes to recover from each interruption to return to their original task.

The difference between these studies shows that workplace interruptions are on the rise and show no signs of slowing down. Is it any wonder that things are not getting done?

What can be done to reduce interruptions and increase productivity? How can people in business people stay on track?

First, focus on the mission statement. If your business doesn't have a mission, it is time to create one. If a mission statement exists, it is the responsibility and obligation of those leading to publicize it to all internal clients.

The rational is that people need to know what to focus on, as a company, as a department and as individuals. If this guidance and direction is missing, people will not be focused on what the organization wants them to be doing. Make sure that the mission is clear and concise.

Second, make sure that every employee has enough to do. While work is a friendly environment and some socializing is to be expected, some people don't have enough to do or they procrastinate getting their work done.

The easiest way for anyone in a supervisory position to deal with this is to have a "daily goal" meeting at the start of the work day with every employee present. At this meeting each employee can state what they accomplished the day before and what their goals are for that day. This allows the supervisor to gauge who is working on meaningful tasks, who is not and whether workloads need to be adjusted. Plus, everyone feels better when they know what's going on.

However, the supervisor cannot make the assumption that everyone is going to do what they say and follow through. It becomes the job of the supervisor, regardless of their title or level, to monitor what their subordinates are doing and take corrective action accordingly. Too many supervisors get caught up doing their own technical work. What they are being paid to do is achieve results through the people that report to them. If a person is not capable or willing to do this, they should not be in a supervisory position.

Third, remove the reasons for the interruptions. Consider where people are located. Are they near the people they are working with? Is there a distance or barrier that encourages interruptions to happen? Do people have the tools and resources to get the job done without interrupting others? Why not?

Fourth, put a pencil to the cost of interruptions. That should be enough incentive to take positive action to keep the rudder of your organization in the water.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Valencia-based Renaissance Executive Forums, bringing business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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