Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Building in interruptions

The University of Sydney research I mentioned recently on the unacknowledged costs of those supposedly money-saving, fun and creativity-enhancing open plan offices has just been published in the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

It led me [thanks to an article in the Wall St Journal, unfortunately behind a pay wall], to some research from the University of California which showed that employees in cubicles are interrupted 29 per cent more often than those in private offices. The peak time for these intrusions is 2.30pm to 4pm.

Organisational psychologists are constantly delving into topics like this, but most of us tend to be unaware of just how much interruptions eat into our productivity and how irritating they are. 

The consequences are costly. It takes more than 25 minutes, on average to resume work after being interrupted, according to one study. And people who experience frequent interruptions reported significantly higher rates of exhaustion, dramatically higher error rates and a 4 per cent increase in physical ailments.

As interruptions become an unfortunate fact of workplace life, some novel solutions are emerging. A company called CubeGuard sells a variety of retractable "Do Not Disturb" barricade tapes to block access to cubicles.

Professor Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University and occupational stress expert, advocates symbolic measures, such as flying a red flag above your desk if you need peace and quiet.

At mindtools.com, you can download a toolkit for managing interruptions. They include an ïnterrupters log worksheet, and some helpful strategies.

The WSJ article also had news of a sensible compromise: an advertising company which recently moved its headquarters into new open-plan office also walled off separate privacy rooms to provide staff with retreats where they can gather their thoughts without interruption.