Brokerage Ops the September 2023 issue

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The interruption culture is killing productivity and accelerating burnout.
By Kimberly Paterson Posted on August 30, 2023

The data suggest there is validity to people’s perceptions that they accomplish more outside the office. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity jumped in the second quarter of 2020 as offices closed and stayed at a high level through 2021. When companies started mandating a return to the office in early 2022, productivity dropped sharply in the first and second quarters of that year. Productivity rebounded marginally in the second and third quarters as workers adjusted to return-to-office mandates, but it never got back to the levels achieved when remote-capable employees worked from home.

Why is it so difficult to be productive in a place designed for work? For most people, the workday is a series of interruptions that kill productivity. When you’re face to face, it’s hard to avoid that manager who stops by your desk asking for a minute of your time or the colleague having a meltdown in the next cubical.

Lost productivity is only part of the story. Frequent interruptions trigger higher rates of frustration, stress and ultimately burnout. One of the common complaints I hear from leaders is that they can’t get to their priorities despite working harder than ever. Instead of a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, they feel stuck in an endless cycle of putting out fires and responding to others’ needs. Conscientious people feel the pressure most acutely and can begin to doubt their effectiveness. Loss of confidence in the ability to get the job done is a key dimension of burnout.

One of the common complaints I hear from leaders is that they can’t get to their priorities despite working harder than ever. Instead of a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, they feel stuck in an endless cycle of putting out fires and responding to others’ needs.

Taming The Interruption Culture

People have a professional responsibility to manage their productivity. But trying to maintain personal discipline in an office where interruption is the norm is like swimming upstream. Some employees have the strength, but it’s a massive drain on valuable energy. Leaders who value productivity and the mental well-being of their people have a duty to create workplaces that make it easier, not more difficult, for people to have good habits.

If you’re ready to change the interruption culture, here are some actions you can take.

Talk openly about the problem. People know that interruptions are an issue, but few realize the true cost. Edward Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant to Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Citibank, says research shows that interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day in the financial services industry. Frequent interruptions can also double error rates. When you consider and calculate all the inefficiencies like lost momentum, do-overs because of errors, and stress, people can lose up to 372 minutes daily or 31 hours a week.

Make it personal. Citing statistics won’t change behavior. The social pressures of being liked and viewed as a team player are powerful and make it hard to say no. Until people realize what interruptions cost them personally in terms of stress, working longer hours, and struggling to keep up, they will find it daunting to set the boundaries needed to protect their time.

Set expectations. Experience tells us that many interruptions are unnecessary. You ask a colleague a question because it’s faster than finding the answer yourself. You instant message your assistant about a report not because it’s urgent but because you want to cross the task off your to-do list. Set an expectation that we stop and think before interrupting a colleague—is the issue urgent or just expedient for us? Be clear about expected internal response times. According to Harvard Business Review, the average professional interrupts their workflow to check their email every 37 minutes. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering found that the most common email response time is two minutes. Is that what you expect?

Agree on a DND signal. Some organizations use synced calendars or status notifications in applications like Slack to signal availability. Others use “do-not-disturb” or “deep work” signs on doors or cubicles. The key is having a universally understood signal and honoring it.

Designate focus work times. Consider blocking a few hours every day that are off limits for internal meetings, phone calls, emails and texts. This gives team members an interruption-free zone for work that requires intense focus.

Create quiet zones. One of the reasons people want to be in the office is the opportunity to socialize, build relationships, feel part of the culture, and learn from colleagues. While places to meet and gather are vital, so are quiet spaces where people can be free of chatty colleagues, phones and people dropping by their desks.

Shift from an open-door policy to office hours. Many leaders pride themselves on their open-door policies. The problem is that it can make it impossible to get anything done. Borrow a concept from college professors and offer daily office hours when your door is open. Office hours are a game changer. You can block time on your calendar for priorities during your peak performance periods and still support your colleagues. Team members become more judicious about what they bring to you and when. Your direct reports begin solving more problems for themselves. The quality of interactions also improves because they’re no longer interrupting your workflow.

Stop Paying the Price

The interruption culture is fixable. The beauty is that it requires no financial investment and delivers a significant impact. When employees are free to focus on their work without needless interruption, productivity improves, and so does morale. Job satisfaction increases exponentially when people feel they have control over getting their work done and that they can successfully execute what’s expected of them. An environment where people know they can do their best work is a powerful tool for attracting and retaining talent.

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