Distractions Cost Businesses Billions
Unnecessary interruptions from emails, instant messages, the Web, and even the telephone are decreasing U.S. business productivity by $588 billion annually, according to a study by Basex research firm. "The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity" shows that interruptions to workflow can cost the average knowledge worker--from senior executive to customer service rep--as much as 2.1 hours a day, or 28 percent of their time.
"Clearly, most of the time we're not talking about spending 2.1 hours on IM or talking on the phone about non-critical matters," says Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex and author of the report. "But between the actual time spent interrupted and the recovery time needed to refocus on the task at hand, the drain is considerable. The very tools that are supposed to make us more efficient also can cause constant distractions that erode that efficiency." With 2.1 hours taken out of the workday of 56 million knowledge workers, at an average salary of $21 per hour, the money quickly adds up.
The study delineates four different classes of interruption, all of which can be subdivided into active (self-initiated) and passive (forced upon the interruptee):
- Total interruptions-- completely occupy the conscious mind, preventing thought about the original task. (An active phone conversation)
- Dominant interruptions-- occupy the larger part of one's thoughts, but leaving the task to develop in the back of the mind. (recreational Web browsing)
- Distractions-- don't stop work on the task but draw attention away so that it proceeds more slowly or erratically. (instant messaging while working)
- Background activities-- unobvious distractions that divert some attention from the task. (worrying about an upcoming event)
Human nature is one of the culprits when it comes to dealing with work interruptions, Spira says. "People don't always know how to differentiate between the urgent and the important, or they think that everything that arises is both urgent and important," he says. "A question about the financial report that's due in six weeks is important, but it's probably not so urgent that it can't wait for a better time." The reverse is also true; unimportant but time-sensitive matters are just as detrimental a distraction.
"Before you consider how to deal with these issues on an individual worker level, you've got to first step back and look higher, and ask managers if they know what it means to manage knowledge workers," Spira says. "Our mental image of efficiency is rooted in the factory scene from Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times,' and managers base performance on how many widgets fly out the door. But customers and raw information aren't widgets, and you can't expect to handle them according to schedule."
Furthermore, the report says, some interruptions are truly important. "Time spent helping a coworker who needs an answer to a business-related question should not be counted as an unnecessary interruption, as it is ultimately necessary to the well being of the company. Of course, one cannot spend the entire day on such tasks, as one's own work will go undone."
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