Getting Interrupted by Your Coworkers Is Good, Actually

Providing employees greater autonomy in when and where they work helps enhance the positive effects of interruptions.

No doubt it’s happened to you, in your dynamic work environment. You’re in the middle of some task at work, focused. Perhaps you’ve even put your phone in a drawer, or at least somewhere out of sight, to reduce distraction. And in comes someone to interrupt your flow of undivided attention. A coworker unexpectedly dropping by to seek help, provide an update, or chat about the weekend; a supervisor checking in on work or assigning a new task; a client calling about the status of their orders. 

This can be annoying, right? A good amount of people, according to a 2020 (pre-pandemic) survey, experience more than 10 interruptions per day, with some encountering more than 20. These interruptions can, as research has shown, negatively affect employees by leading to time-pressure and lowered productivity. So, it is not surprising that the advice often given to managers is to try to eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of times people interrupt each other at work. But might there be an unappreciated trade-off here? Consider a recent study, which I conducted with my colleagues Joel Koopman, from Texas A&M, and Heather Vough, from George Mason University, which is set to appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology: We found that there is also a potential upside to these daily work interruptions—greater sense of belonging and connection with others in the workplace.

Daily work interruptions helped employees gain a sense of belonging.

That upside has to do with the social aspect of someone interrupting you. Our results show that although switching attention between tasks can be draining for interrupted employees, the social aspect of interruptions can, in fact, benefit them by making them feel closer, or better connected, to their coworkers. There is substantial work in social psychology showing that humans are inherently social beings with a fundamental need for social interaction and connection. We found that by providing employees an avenue to interact with others in the workplace, daily work interruptions helped employees gain a sense of belonging, which, in turn, led to greater job satisfaction and enhanced well-being for them. We also found something else: The belongingness that interruptions foster also seemed to counteract some of the negative effects that the repeated switching of attention between tasks had on interrupted employees’ job satisfaction.

This finding, that work interruptions can have both negative and positive consequences for interrupted employees’ well-being and job satisfaction, has important implications for how managers handle work interruptions. From an ethical perspective, it is incumbent on managers to create conditions in the workplace that enhance the well-being of their employees. As such, our findings indicate that if managers were to follow the popular advice of eliminating or reducing all interruptions, they might, in fact, end up depriving employees of opportunities to feel a sense of belonging and thereby experience enhanced job satisfaction and well-being. Hence, we recommend that managers should instead focus on reducing the negative effects and enhancing the benefits of daily work interruptions.

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How can they do this? We found that providing employees greater autonomy in when and where they work helps enhance the positive effects of interruptions. The reason could be that when employees have more autonomy, they may know that they can easily reschedule their interrupted work later on. This can, in turn, enable them to not be too distracted or preoccupied with how the interruption is affecting their tasks and thus be able to focus more on the interruptions’ social component and benefit from it. Employees can also guard against the bad effects of interruptions by briefly noting to themselves where they are on their task, and what’s left to do. “This action,” according to researchers writing in Harvard Business Review, “provides your brain the cognitive closure it needs to reduce attention residue so you can be more present and perform at your best.”

Managers could also focus on interventions for reducing other unnecessary workplace distractions such as, say, unwanted background noises, or malfunctioning equipment. It’s easy to overlook how draining stuff like this can be on employees’ energy levels. By helping to remove various nuisances, managers can ensure that employees have enough energy and mental resources to deal with the negative effects of the task-based aspect of interruptions by other people, thereby weakening its negative impact on their job satisfaction.

I have experienced these positive effects myself. At a former job, where I shared an open office space with my colleagues, we would invariably interrupt each other frequently. These interruptions may have, at times, taken a toll on our tasks, but the social element of these interruptions helped us form strong connections with each other. It led, for me, to a greater sense of well-being, and that was worth it.

Harshad Puranik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Managerial Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lead image: olia danilevich / Pexels