2021-06-10 - 9 MIN READ
Remote work

Managing Interruptions at Work – Tips for Remote Employees

Remote work has affected the way we manage our day. Employees often experience a more flexible work schedule than before and can mix work tasks with daily duties. In many cases, a remote way of working turned out to be even more productive than working in the office. “A two-year study of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home”.

Managing interruptions while working remotely

However, that doesn't mean that we suddenly stop having trouble concentrating and are great at dealing with interruptions. Studies show that employees from IT professionals to health care providers are interrupted every 6 to 12 minutes and it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds just to get back to where they left off. Interruptions in the workplace also impact the quality of our work (accuracy and errors, task performance, quality of information processing) and our well-being (motivation, satisfaction).

In this article, we focus on managing interruptions at work while working remotely. Learn how to deal with them, so you can accomplish more in less time.

The negative impact of multitasking

First of all, let’s deal with “the multitasking myth”. The first published use of the word "multitask" appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360 in 1965. In later years, this led to a reflection on how effective a person can be at work. Employers and employees started to believe that people can be more like computers and accomplish multiple things at the same time. Multitasking became a competency that companies were looking for during the hiring processes.

In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40%. Mostly because of a constant shift of attention and focus from one task to another. “Multitasking is rewiring our brains, enabling multiple tasks to be processed in more rapid succession. As our brains adapt to task management, we lose our ability to think deeply and creatively.” What’s also interesting is that while we multitask the brain must constantly decide which activity is most important, and it also leads to losses of energy.

Why do we tell you about multitasking? Because it has a significant impact on our resistance to distractions during work. If you get used to dividing your attention spine between several actions, after some time you might find yourself unable to avoid the distractors. Even if, at the specific moment, there will be nothing demanding your attention, your brain will look for other things to focus on because it has become accustomed to receiving many stimuli at once. So you may start to create distractions automatically by yourself like checking apps and social media.

The meaning of workplace interruptions

Interruptions seem to be of little importance. A few minutes to check up social media or Slack channels, a quick meeting during the day regarding one of the projects, reading an e-mail between tasks - all of these, at first glance, takes us little time because we work eight (or more) hours anyway. However, even short interruptions have a surprisingly large effect on the human ability to accurately complete tasks and cause that you are twice as likely to make mistakes in your work.

Another fact is that these few minutes can cost you much more time than you expect:

Research has found that, in the financial services industry, interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. Then you have to restart. That’s the loss of another 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes. That’s 372 minutes, or 6.2 hours every day, or 31 hours a week – almost a whole person, in productive time lost. (source: Washington Post).

What else? Interruptions affect your mood by the end of the day. The efficiency or flow of a given day has a meaningful impact on whether or not you perceive your day as a good one. When there are fewer interruptions your workdays are filled with progress, quality work, and less stress because you have accomplished more or at least what you were supposed to. Many interruptions make you feel that you haven’t done much and that you spent most of your time on actions that were meaningless.

What are the most common interruptions at work?

Before many of us started working from home daily, most of the interruptions were caused by a loud environment, emails, and co-workers. When we moved with our work from offices to homes it seemed that it was going to be easier to stay focused. However, it turned out that some distractors were quickly replaced by others. You can’t block out every interruption during the course of a day but the first good step towards managing them is being aware of what breaks your flow while working.

Below we list the most common interruptions:

1. Meetings
There is an interesting study conducted by Github that shows how online meetings affect developer’s productivity. 74% of developers who had an average of 2 meetings a day stated they made progress towards their goals. When the number of meetings increased up to 3, only 14% felt they accomplished most of the work related to their tasks. That’s a significant difference. Frequent meetings break the rhythm of work not only by developers. We need some time before and after the meeting, to either prepare or think over what has been discussed.

2. Notifications
Before working from home became so common, most of us were taking a break to talk with co-workers over a coffee or lunch. Some may call it interruption but there is a significant difference. Taking a break at the scheduled time allows us to reset our mind and we associate this time with relaxation. Now, to talk we use all types of online communicators and there is no specific time when we communicate. It makes us break away from the task at hand, even several times within an hour, to reply to a message.

3. Constant surveillance
Not all leaders who manage remote workers are eager to leave their employees without supervision. They are sometimes tempted to seek out technologies that monitor what employees are doing online during work hours. There is nothing wrong with using time tracking tools but monitoring employees with software that takes screenshots or tracking websites visited can be too much. When an employee feels constantly surveilled, they can become distracted, stressed and focus on the wrong things. This can also lead to toxic company culture.

4. Home duties
If you have a flexible schedule and don’t need to work at standard hours like 9 to 5, there is nothing wrong with taking planned breaks - outside of working time - to do some housework or take care of your personal business. But it gets complicated when you switch from working into doing home duties every hour or two. Even if washing the dishes, doing the laundry, or paying bills online may take you only several minutes to do so, you will waste much more time to regain a state of focus on the task. As a result, you may lose your free time later because you will be catching up at work.

4 ways to minimize the number of interruptions

Some interruptions are annoying while others seem to be a natural part of our day. Interruptions are caused by many factors, including you - that’s why you are always exposed to them. You aren’t able to avoid all of them but you can to some extent learn to control how often interruptions appear and what impact they have on your productivity. Usually, in any working environment, you’ll be managing interruptions a few times a day.

Look up what are the ways that can help you manage interruptions at work:

1. Daily work summary
One of the ways of managing interruptions is developing the habit of self-reflection. By the end of the day sum up how your day was developing – it will make you more aware of how much time you spent on each activity and how you felt after. Daily reflection helps to realize which areas need improvement and can increase your satisfaction. You can find negative patterns in your behavior and counteract them the next time when unwanted interruptions appear. You will start controlling your day instead of just letting it go. It will increase your productivity and allow you to work out new better habits.

2. Time locks
Establish a quiet, interruption-free time for work when you fully concentrate on your most important tasks. Add time blocks to your calendar, so other co-workers won’t be able to schedule meetings with you during this time. You can also add a status on Slack, so everyone can see that you aren’t able to text back right away or join the conversation. If necessary you can inform management that you won’t be available during specific parts of the day due to focusing on your goals but that it doesn’t mean you aren’t working. Communicate in advance that you are working on a big project and need to focus on it.

3. Prepare a list of “interruptions”
Having your priority daily task written down helps you maintain your time more consciously throughout the day but there is another list that may increase your productivity. Each day put a piece of paper on your desk and add a date, then whenever someone calls, message you or send an email asking for a specific thing to do just note it on the paper. This will help you accomplish what is important to you first, instead of immediately jumping into what they asked for. You won’t be losing time refocusing on your tasks. You can simply reply as soon as you finish.

4. Control self-distractions
Sometimes the most difficult is to control ourselves, because our attention is often distracted from important tasks by small activities that have become a permanent part of our lives, such as checking social media platforms. The good idea is to set limits on your phone or computer when and for how long you’ll use them – like twice a day for 5-10 minutes. You can also give yourself a specific time when you freely scroll through them, for example at lunch, but the rest of the time push them aside so you can focus on your work. Don’t log in or turn off notifications so nothing will distract you.

5. Work-life balance
In the 6 Ways To Stay Mentally Healthy in the Current ‘Work From Home’ Reality article, we wrote that “It’s great to have a flexible schedule but it’s easy to fall into the trap of devoting too much time either to work or non-work-related activities when you don’t build a daily routine.” When you plan your free time and actually spend some time on activities completely unrelated to work, it’s easier to stay focused during work. Give your mind a proper time to reset and relax, so it won’t be wandering around and looking for other things to do when you need to accomplish your tasks.

Summing up

Interruptions are more disruptive than we think — and it affects more than just our work. With minimal or no interruptions, developers had an 82% chance of having a good day, but when developers were interrupted the majority of the day, their chances of having a good day dropped to just 7%. By minimizing distractions and creating focus time, we not only get work done, we create better and less stressful days for ourselves. (source: Github).

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