January 10, 2006

The Herald

Why modern offices only let you work for 11 minutes

By Brian Donnelly

It has been described as multi-tasking madness as office workers struggle to balance their normal workload with an increasing number of e-mails and other demands.

New research has found that, instead of helping workers through the day, new technology can bring increased stress and disruption to busy staff. The study shows modern-day staff work for just 11 minutes before they are interrupted by an e-mail, phone call or a metaphorical tap on the shoulder from a colleague.

Researchers have calculated that interruptions consume an average of 2.1 hours of every working day, or 28% of the average person's routine. It has reached such an extent that workers are becoming locked in what was described as a mire of multi-tasking, and one expert said there had been a tenfold rise in the number of people suffering from what he called work-induced attention-deficit disorder.

The two hours of lost productivity included not only unimportant interruptions and distractions, but also the recovery time associated with getting back on track.

Once people are interrupted, it takes an average of nearly half an hour to return to the original task, but some workers admit their concentration is ruined for the rest of the day. The report, The Cost of Not Paying Attention, was written by a research team headed by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez, of the University of California.

They studied a random sample of 36 office workers and found that the employees devoted an average of just 11 minutes to a project before the ping of an e-mail, the ring of the phone, or a verbal interruption from a manager or colleague pulled them in another direction.

Once they were interrupted, it took on average of 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they managed to do so at all that day. Workers in the study were juggling an average of 12 projects each, a situation one subject described as "constant, multi-tasking craziness".

The five biggest causes of interruption were a colleague stopping to talk, being called away from the desk (or leaving voluntarily), arrival of new e-mail, doing another task on the computer, or a phone call.

Edward Hallowell, a leading psychiatrist, said he had seen 10 times more people in the number of patients with what he described as work-induced attention-deficit disorder than in recent years. Dr Hallowell said: "They complained that they were more irritable than they wanted to be. Their productivity was declining and they couldn't get organised." He has branded workers' compulsive use of mobiles, computers, and Blackberries as "screen-sucking".

Business leaders recognised that interruptions happen, but said they should be managed alongside regular workload.

David Lonsdale, assistant director of CBI Scotland, said: "Interruptions, from within or outwith the workplace, can sometimes make it seem hard to get things done, particularly with the growth in use of new technology.

"However, unexpected calls or queries do not necessarily have to disrupt the working day. Less urgent items can be done later, and those pop-up boxes and bells that signal the arrival of new e-mail can be disabled. Telephone calls can also be screened.

"Constant questions from colleagues might suggest they have been given inadequate training or instruction from the outset."

Mary Czerwinski, a senior researcher at Microsoft, has been helping the computer giant design alternatives to current software products to allow workers to stay on task for longer periods, even as on-screen interruptions arrive.

In next-generation systems, interruptions are designed to be less intrusive, without flashes, pop-ups or pings. For example, e-mail alerts will appear on the periphery of a screen that is larger than today's standard, so that workers remain concentrated on their main task.

People such as Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, claims to stay focused by avoiding junk food and doing daily workouts. Although a serious multi-tasker and mobile phone fan, Ms Rice does not rely on e-mail or a hand-held computer, but carries her agenda in her head.

Donald Trump, the entrepreneur who once negotiated a book deal in 15 minutes, believes in slowing down and focusing when the office gets too frenetic. He said: "I will literally take a breath and allow things to settle a bit. I also set aside quiet time each morning and evening for reading and assessing."
Why modern offices only let you work for 11 minutes