Discovering the benefits of being interrupted by colleagues at work

The negative effects of work interruptions are well documented: difficulties moving ahead with tasks, time-pressure, stress, and lowered productivity. Managers often look for ways to eliminate, or at least minimise such interruptions. But a new study by Harshad Puranik, Joel Koopman, and Heather C. Vough shows an upside to these workplace interruptions: increased feelings of belonging.

With vaccines for COVID-19 becoming more accessible, organisations are starting to reopen for in-person work. As more employees return to their offices, and workplaces get busier, employees will likely experience the resurgence of a common workplace phenomenon—work interruptions. For example, co-workers often pop in unexpectedly to provide updates, ask for help, or to catch up; supervisors drop by to give new tasks or check in on tasks; subordinates come in to seek guidance; and clients call about their orders.

The negative effects of these work interruptions, such as the difficulty of moving ahead with one’s tasks, and the resulting time-pressure, stress, and lowered productivity, have been well-documented. It is not surprising, then, that managers often look for ways to eliminate, or at least minimise such interruptions. But the results of our recent study indicate that there might also be an upside to these workplace interruptions.

The social side of workplace interruptions and its benefits

You may wonder how being interrupted by others could be a good thing. The answer is that the experience of being interrupted may actually increase feelings of belongingness due to the interactions with the interrupter. Work interruptions have two aspects. First, they get in the way of completing work tasks and that’s where the negative effects happen. Being forced to repeatedly switch tasks due to interruptions takes a toll on employees’ energy and lowers their job satisfaction. However, beyond this task-based aspect, being interrupted by others also has a social aspect to it—interaction with the interrupter.

This social component has been largely ignored by prior research, as the dominant conversation about interruptions has focused exclusively on their negative, task-based effects. Our study, however, shows that employees may benefit from the social interactions that occur during these work interruptions. Indeed, if we have learned one thing from the last year of social distancing and isolation, it is that humans are inherently social creatures with a fundamental need for social interaction. Research from social psychology suggests that the need for social connection and belongingness is evolutionarily hard-wired and is an important contributor to our psychological well-being (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

We find that the social interactions necessitated by work interruptions help interrupted employees fulfil their need to belong. This is crucial, however our study found something else on top of this. That is, this positive effect flowing from the social aspect can also actually undo the concurrent negative effects arising from the task-based aspect of the interruption. Thus, the social aspect provided a crucial counterpoint to the negative effects of the task-based aspect of interruptions and, in fact, enhanced employees’ well-being. This means that instead of the negative experience they are often made out to be, being interrupted at work can be a net positive for the well-being of employees.

The finding of a potential beneficial side to it calls into question the current popular advocacy for the elimination of all work interruptions. Doing away with interruptions could result in employees losing out on the benefits flowing from the social aspect revealed in our study. Hence, instead of complete elimination of work interruptions, we call for better management of these interruptions, with the aim of enhancing the benefits of their social aspect and reducing the negative effects of their task-based aspect. Below, we provide some specific recommendations for how to do this:

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