Interruptions can be annoying, especially if you’re working on a deadline and need to focus. They’re especially bothersome when they’re unnecessary, like the coworker who stops by to chat about the new restaurant they tried or has the details of weekend college football.
While some disruptions negatively impact your productivity, a new report called “To What Do I Owe This Visit? The Drawbacks and Benefits of In-Role and Non-Role Intrusions” published in the Journal of Management found that others may provide important benefits.
“A lot of literature and popular press talks about interruptions as these very negative things that you want to try to avoid at all costs,” says researcher John Bush, assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business, and one of the report’s researchers. “We felt there may be a little more nuance there in terms of the type of interruption that you are receiving.”
Two Kinds of Interruptions
Interruptions can be work-related or non-work-related. Bush defines a work-related interruption as “an unexpected encounter initiated by another person that disrupts an individual’s work but covers a work-related topic.” For example, your manager stops by to check on the status of an assignment, or a coworker texts you about a project on which you’re collaborating. Non-work-related interruptions involve small talk, such as the weather, sports, or dinner. Bush found quite a few differences in terms of receiving a work-related versus non-work-related interruption.
“We found that individuals who experience work-related interruptions are more engaged over the course of a workday,” says Bush, who conducted three separate studies to gather the findings. “That was contrary to the overall dialogue about interruptions. Non-work-related interruptions, however, are consistent with people’s intuition. We found that those types of interruptions actually decrease your engagement, breaking people’s flow to an extent where it was hindering their work.”
Another difference in interruptions’ impact was related to collaboration. “We predicted that both types of interruptions would increase collaboration among coworkers, and for work-related interruptions we did find that,” says Bush. “But we did not find that to be true with non-work-related interruptions, which was a surprise. Our expectation was even though you’re having these non-work-related conversations, it would provide an opportunity to transition to more work-related conversations, but that didn’t happen.”
How to Handle Interruptions
The takeaway from this study can help you plan your day. If you’re working on a project that requires deep focus, Bush recommends telling coworkers that it’s fine to be interrupted for a work-related discussion but otherwise you would appreciate some space to finish your work. You can also specify times or places where you welcome personal conversations.
“While we didn’t find any specific benefits to non-work-related interruptions, those conversations help develop relationships, which we certainly do need,” says Bush. “There are other studies that examine the importance of having friends at work and team building—all things that promote team cohesion. But we want to limit the extent to which personal conversations break someone else’s workflow.”
The research is also helpful if you’re the one who wants to interrupt a coworker’s day to talk about what your child did.
“Depending on where you work, there are probably hours when you would not want to have any personal interruptions,” says Bush. “For instance, if you work in the stock market, you have very specific hours, 9:30 to 4 p.m. In this case, it’s probably better to save that discussion for the end of the day or when you see someone in the break room.”
Bush says this research is particularly relevant to the decisions organizations are making during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several businesses are allowing employees to continue to work from home on a permanent basis. “Although many employees may prefer the flexibility of working from home, there are potential benefits they may be missing out on that come from in-person interactions,” he says.
All interruptions aren’t created equal. The key is to know when they’re appropriate and when they’re not.