William Belk


Office distractions could be costing your company more than $30k per high-performance employee each…

That’s just the beginning.

→ Are you a high-performance employee? Please help me better understand you by contributing to a 30-second anonymous survey. Thank you! http://bit.ly/high-performance-survey

This article is part of a series on High-Performance Employees (HPEs). Start reading the series here.

My latest data* shows that 80% of high-performance employees are interrupted 5 or more times a day by things like unplanned meetings; being drawn into other conversations; incoming questions from co-workers that could be answered with little effort; and so on—with a staggering 40% interrupted more than 8 times each day. (*Over 4,000 respondents from industries like Software, IT, Hardware, Financial Services, Creative, Marketing, Automotive, Architecture and Manufacturing.)

Wow. Let’s dig in.

It’s obvious that employee interruptions have the potential to negatively impact our teams and the trajectory of business. We will first look at the impacts of interruptions on employee time, morale and wellness—later we can infer some troubling effects on process efficiency, time to market, and innovation. Scary stuff.

Before we begin, let’s quickly mention the baseline of our mobile generation. Everyone is distracted by everything: their phones, social notifications, news notifications, drones, email, alerts, life-casting, everything. The age barrier to hyper-connectivity has evaporated. We can assume that everyone at every company has the potential to start each day behind a large attention deficit. As such, our companies need to get serious; they have to become more vigilant about reducing distractions and interruptions.

Employee Time

As the headline of this article suggests, time is money. High-performance employees (HPEs) are expensive. According to Indeed*, the average annual pay for Software Engineers is $100,524; Senior Designers is $87,292; Architects is $99,373; Product Designers is $90,004. (*at time of writing)

Let’s say the average HPE is making $94,000 base salary, plus $16,920 (or 18%) for benefits and perks, for a total of $110,920 per year. If we assume 2,080 work hours per year, it translates to $53 per hour.

Let’s simplify our interruption assumptions and say that the average HPE is interrupted 6 times per day.

In several interviews and presentations, Professor Gloria Mark from the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine stated her research shows that it takes an average of 23 minutes for an employee to recover on task after an interruption. Interruptions can also be considered task switches. For reference, a great visual explanation of task switching can be found here.

We may even argue that recovery time can be considerably higher than 23 minutes for our high-performance employees (HPEs). As explained here, HPEs are relied on to solve a company’s hardest problems. In 2006, Iqbal and Baily showed research that task interruption during times of “lower [mental] workload results in meaningfully lower cost of interruption than [at] higher workload”—with random interruptions causing “up to 30% longer [task recovery]…up to twice the errors.” Anecdotally I would suggest their data set could be more robust, but their case is compelling. To keep things simple, let’s continue to assume 23 minutes of recovery time for our HPEs.

And so, back to time and money.

  • [6 interruptions per day] x [23 minutes per interruption]
  • = [138 minutes] of underperforming recovery time per day (or 2.3 hours, or 29% of an 8-hour work day)
  • = [600 wasted hours per year]
  • If we’re paying our HPEs an average of $53 per hour, that’s $31,800 per year. Again, this number may be conservative.

If we have a team of 40 software engineers or creatives, that’s $1.27M in wasted time and money. Perhaps that’s just the beginning.

Employee Morale & Wellness

In addition to the acute effects on employee time and productivity, interruptions naturally affect HPE morale. My research shows that 76% of HPEs say trade mastery, not money, is most important in career decisions and 58% say they need more quiet work spaces. Environments with many interruptions and distractions will interrupt workflow and inhibit the achievement of mastery by our people. Mastery could be the primary driver in career fulfillment. Interruptions create a dissonance down to the core of the HPE.

More interruptions cause more stress. In 2008, Professor Gloria Mark published research that showed a 32–37% increase in stress and a 37–40% increase in frustration associated with task interruptions. She concluded that “people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”

Frequent interruptions can also consistently cause an employee to work late or at home in order to catch up. If we want employees that tend toward high stress and frustration, let the interruptions continue! Stressed and frustrated employees also fall ill with ease. Sick employees cost us money and are generally a very discouraged lot. In my experience, winter and spring sickness at fast moving companies sweeps through like a tidal wave — few are able to escape.

Process Efficiency

Interruptions are also harmful to process efficiency in several ways. Let’s return to the idea of an interruption as a task switch. Many of our process designs allow for interruption, task switching and gross overloads of multi-tasking. With more than 5 interruptions per day, we need to design our people systems to improve focus and autonomy, and remove impediments along the way (like interruptions).

For a great real-world example, let’s look at the software process methodology called Scrum—where teams synchronize around standardized delivery and cadence schedules, or Sprints. Because synchronization is one of the finest artifacts from Scrum, it should be considered for all types of technical and creative teams.

For teams larger than three people, I find Scrum to be far superior to Kanban or other more simplistic first-in-first-out (FIFO) systems for three reasons: 1) impediment removal, 2) batch size or work-in-process constraints, and 3) predictable interruption cadence. I talk more about this in my 2012 book, Rocket Fueled Process.

1) Impediment Removal

In a Scrum system, the ‘Scrum Master’ has a most important responsibility—remove organizational impediments for people. Each morning Scrum teams execute their ‘stand-up’ meeting. The most important part of that meeting is providing a forum to voice impediments to daily progress—“what am I blocked on?”

We often hear of impediments like too much direct access from non-team personnel, noise levels, equipment issues, waiting on teammates, environmental distractions, and so on.

One of my favorite contributions of the Scrum Master is removing personnel access to engineers. Once a Sprint starts and an engineer has committed to a task, not a single person in the organization should have access to that engineer, not even the CEO. Whimsical access to engineers is common from executives. They have random questions and they want answers right away. This causes acute context switching for engineers. As we already know, frequent context switching is very bad, and costs us time and money.

2) Batch Size or Work-In-Process (WIP) Constraints

When I design teams, I advocate that no employee be assigned (or volunteer for) more than 12 uninterrupted hours of completed work per week. “Completed” means a finished increment of demonstrable progress. I’ve been testing this constraint for almost 10 years. I rarely see busy teams where employees can sustain more than 12 uninterrupted hours of completed work per week without compromising either task completion or their own well-being over time. Why? Because of two things: 1) natural and forced workplace interruptions: meetings, research, changing course, brainstorming, and 2) optimistic time estimation.

By using the smallest batches—or units of demonstrable work—we’re building a highly constrained first-in-first-out (FIFO) delivery system for our people, and also limiting multi-tasking to a minimum. In Rocket Fueled Process, I talk a lot about batch size constraints. I’m in strong agreement with Donald Reinertsen that constraining batch size is the single greatest improvement we can make at work. If we use the 1-week work Sprint or iteration length, then constraining batch size—i.e. limiting work to a single focused task—will naturally reduce interruptions and distraction. We get so many benefits from small batch size:

  • Minimum queue size
  • Minimum iteration length and cycle time
  • Maximum speed to completion (Minimum time to market)
  • Minimum technical risk
  • Minimum personnel risk
  • Minimum documentation
  • Fast hypothesis testing, rapid learning
  • Minimum cost of ownership per increment of completed work
  • Reduce the number of blind assumptions that fuel our decisions

If we get all of the above benefits from something as simple as constraining the amount of work we have in process at any given time, it starts to look like a lot of happier people in an office.

3) Predictable Interruption Cadence

Another huge benefit from structured process control for employees is the ability to predictably interrupt employees at times of lower mental workload—instead of in the middle of laborious thinking and problem solving.

Paul Graham famously explains this when describing the Maker’s Schedule:

The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. […]
When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. […]
If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. […]
Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to.

Using the Scrum example, once an employee agrees to work on a task, they work until it’s complete without any outside distraction. Unless they experience a problem with their work or environment, and they proactively reach out for help, they are encouraged to just keep working. Once a week, or at longest once every two weeks, those employees report in for a planning and review meeting where they volunteer for additional work. It’s a beautiful system.

As previously referenced, Iqbal and Bailey noted in their research that:

interrupting tasks at random moments can cause users to take up to 30% longer to resume [tasks], commit up to twice the errors, and experience up to twice the negative affect than when interrupted at boundaries.

What this means is that if we can design our processes to give our employees a predictable interruption cadence for things like team meetings and discussion, we will see huge improvements in available work time, mental effort and efficiency.

Imagine if an entire team of technicals or creatives was off limits to the entire organization except for two hours per week of ‘office hours,’ where they are happy to answer questions and invite discussions from anyone in the organization. At all other times, coworkers are encouraged to disengage. This is predictable interruption cadence. It sounds extreme, but our HPEs at many companies spend gross amounts of time responding to whimsical interruptions and impromptu meetings from coworkers.

At the end of the day, if our people cannot work efficiently and predictably, we will underperform in every sector of our business.

Time To Market & Innovation

So then, according my research on office interruptions and that of Professor Gloria Mark on task interruption recovery—if our HPEs are donating up to 29% of their day to random interruptions, the negative effects on our time to market and sustainable innovation potential should run deep.

Do we miss the next product launch by 4 months? Does that setback grow grow linearly or exponentially over time? Does our morale deteriorate, and along with it our retention? Does the community start to hear that our company is not a happy place to work, that we are unable to support our growing masters of craft? Do our competitors eat our lunch?

Time to market and innovation are trailing indicators, i.e. all of our great organizational design, people processes, culture, and trade mastery potential will make its market impact many months, years or decades later. Similarly, so too will our organizational cancer, incomplete culture, bad process, incompetent leadership, and short-sighted environmental design.

A disciplined program that optimizes the holistic wellness and mastery potential of our HPEs is the leading indicator for long-term success and sustainable innovation. The puzzle remains that designing people systems for our HPEs can be difficult and nebulous. It requires a dedication to understanding, and a persistent effort to narrow the disconnect between executives and HPEs—who often optimize against completely different career and trade principles.

Perhaps something as seemingly inconsequential as 3 fewer interruptions per day could be the difference in efficiency, sustainable innovation, market leadership, retention, community esteem and happier people.

→ Are you a high-performance employee? Please help me better understand you by contributing to a 30-second anonymous survey. Thank you! http://bit.ly/high-performance-survey

This article is part of a series on High-Performance Employees (HPEs). Start reading the series here.

More by William Belk

Topics of interest

More Related Stories