Friday, July 06, 2007

Workplace Interruptus

Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but is also a disruption of thought. - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

I'm a Baby Boomer which means I get work done by starting, concentrating and finishing. I'm pretty good at juggling multiple work items throughout the day but I like to give 100% of my focus to whatever I am working on at a given time. This means that I don't listen to music while I'm working and I could never have a television on in the background if I expect to produce high quality work results. Luckily for me I can generally control the noise level in my office (for the most part) but there is one thing that is getting harder to control and that is interruptions.

Consultant EJ Heresniak makes some interesting points about interruptions in the May/June edition of The Conference Board Review magazine. Heresniak blames technology for transforming work into a series of interruptions. He notes that technology creates a
constant stream of distractions, many masquerading as work but serving only as interruptions to actually doing work.
In the past, he explains, interruptions could be limited to the once per day mail drop or the running into a friend or colleague in the hallway or on the street.
There seemed to be a time between interruptions when you could get "into" work and actually do something from start to finish. We don't have that anymore, and I think it's impacting productivity. Handling endless interruptions can keep you really busy, of course... but it ain't real work.
I agree with Heresniak on many of his points. In the past few years I have worried about the effect of this change on work patterns and productivity. In fact a 2005 British study concluded that constant disruption from emails and phone calls had a greater (negative) effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. The good news, though, is that what we are beginning to see is that the younger Generation Y employees are actually adapting (evolving?) to this stop-and-go multiple streams of work activity work style. They, unlike me, are capable of producing while listening to the radio, checking their favorite online forums, sending and receiving emails and engaging in multiple IM conversations.

I'm not quite sure how the young workers manage to do a dozen things simultaneously but it's comforting to see that they are succeeding at it. It seems that they have been able to take the positive aspects of having multiple modes of communication and integrate them into their work (and lives) without any of the negatives. Well, maybe some of the negatives but still the net effect seems to fall into the positive column. The baby boomers like me and presumably Mr.Heresniak might not be able to get work done with the huge number of interruptions but with any luck our successors will.

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