Understanding the Real Dollar and Morale Costs of Interruptions

Don Tennant
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Survey Says IT Worker Stress Way Down, Pride Up

Last month, I wrote a post about time management consultant Edward Brown and his argument that interruptions, far from being the perfectly normal way of life we’ve come to see them to be, are actually a taxing but very avoidable drain on our time. There’s more to the story, including the importance of recognizing the cost that companies and employees are bearing due to interruptions.

Brown is founder and president of Cohen Brown Management Group, a culture change and time management consulting and training firm in Los Angeles, and author of  “The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had.” In a recent email interview, he cited a 2005 study by Basex, an IT research and consulting firm, that found that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. Now, he said, it’s far worse:

The Basex research actually explained that in 2005 they conducted a “cost of interruptions study” and found the cost to be $588 billion and that the growth of the loss due to interruptions was 7 percent a year. This would mean in 2015 our loss is above one trillion dollars, and still growing! … Forty to 60 percent, or three to five hours a day, of our most productive time is consumed by unwanted, unnecessary, and completely unproductive interruptions. This doesn’t have to continue, not even in an open office floor plan architecture, which began in the 1950s and is coming to be seen as a “worst business practice” mistake.

The good news, Brown said, is that it’s a fixable problem:

All that’s necessary are “mutual time lock agreements” entered into between colleagues that will protect one another’s “time lock” (allowing for no interruptions other than emergencies) and still get all the benefits of open floor plans, which includes increased high-quality collaborative team playing for which open floor plans were designed in the first place.

I asked Brown what the biggest mistake or false assumption is that companies make that allows for the fostering of a culture in which interruptions become pervasive. He said it’s the belief that interruptions are benign:

They are not. They are vicious, insidious leeches on our time, productivity, and happiness. People regularly underestimate the high cost of those little interruptions that happen day in and day out. Remember, it’s not just the interruption itself that throws the employee off task. There’s the time wasted to reassemble their thoughts and resources, a little staler this time. There’s loss of momentum or physiological shortcuts created to accomplish the task. There’s frustration at having to regroup, which dissipates the energy that work thrives on. There is the distress and fatigue of having to make up for time lost. There’s the likelihood of errors, which take even more time to correct.

Brown’s advice for managers and employees on how to eliminate the interruption culture in their company is to start by calculating the cost of interruptions:

Have people take note of how much time they lose to interruptions on a typical day. Then put a value on it. The dollar value of their time, or the cost in terms of family time sacrificed, or the loss of job satisfaction. Now they will have tremendous incentive to change. This exercise will also have revealed to people the source of most of their interruptions. Now they know their Time Bandits. So it’s time to teach them how to negotiate with their Time Bandits—how to explain how they can protect their time and still meet the Time Bandits’ needs. It’s not just about protecting time, but about helping people work together more harmoniously.

Finally, Brown said it’s important to remember that addressing the interruption problem changes people’s lives for the better:

Something our clients ask me early on is, “Ed, this sounds like a lot of change, and nobody likes change except a wet baby. Are you sure my people will take to it and that we will see change after we do it?” I remind them, let’s not suppose this is just about improved productivity at their company, even though that is worth a lot. I know they believe there are other ways to improve productivity—automation, and so on. But they should ask themselves whether automation will make people say, “This has changed my life for the better. I love my work now because I can get it done in the time allotted. I now know I can find the time to fulfill my dreams at work and in my personal life.”

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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