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Mass distractions can hamper progress at work

"Managers must recognise recurring business cycle interruptions, such as performance evaluation, and ease the impact on individuals by blocking out time for these activities in schedules."




Jordan Cohen

Financial Times

13 September 2012


Do we have a problem with interruptions at work?

We are bombarded with distractions at work, from phone calls, text messages, smart phone notifications and emails, to the more traditional chatty colleague. Research suggests that incoming smart phone alerts could tap into associative learning pathways in a similar way to an addiction such as gambling. The result is a borderline compulsive need to check a phone when it vibrates. A typical work desk these days can be an incoming alert mine field, often strewn with desk phone, iPhone, BlackBerry, PC, laptop and even iPad. That’s a huge incoming alert potential, and consequently, a huge distraction potential.


Give an example of a workplace distraction

Distractions are ever present. I recently blogged about arriving in London with no pants and how it had disrupted my work schedule. A minor interruption while packing led to them not making it into my suitcase. Being an American, I didn’t realise that “pants” has a different meaning in the UK. Several London colleagues inquired about undergarments and because I sit in an open-plan office, this proved to be another interruption.


Are there types of distraction?

In general, there are two types – episodic and systemic. Episodic are intermittent intrusions to our work flow, often caused by technology or human interaction. Systemic interruptions are more predictable and institutionalised. They are a function of a corporate preference for working in a certain way. They take the form of regular activities, from performance reviews and upward reporting, to attending meetings. These are usually only a by-product of our core reason for employment but are required by management.


Can anyone control interruptions?

People have varying degrees of control over each type of interruption. Employees tend to have more control over episodic interruptions, while managers are in a better position to control systemic interruptions. Employees have a responsibility to identify what distracts them and to minimise it; managers have a responsibility to identify what environmental or structural constraints are causing teams to be distracted and to address those.


Are there steps individuals can take?

Yes. They can set their default settings to “off” – if Instant Messenger doesn’t pop up, people are less likely to spend time on it; ask friends and family to stop using a work email address; those easily distracted by conversations should sit in a quiet area or try something unconventional, such as putting a “do not disturb – work in progress” sign above their desk; and avoid meetings where information is being shared by getting a buddy to give you a summary.


What can managers do?

They first need to limit the impact of episodic interruptions by taking control of predictably distracting events, such as the Olympics, by scheduling breaks for a team to congregate and concentrating the distraction into a limited timeframe; limit the time employees spend on known regular interruptions, such as leaving the office to buy coffee, by investing in a great coffee machine; and manage a team’s IT service by working with the IT department to ensure a more personalised and regular service for staff.


And what about systemic interruptions?

Managers must recognise recurring business cycle interruptions, such as performance evaluation, and ease the impact on individuals by blocking out time for these activities in schedules. They should instil good meeting management principles by limiting numbers of attendees and duration and encouraging staff to attend only essential meetings. They must also recognise unproductive work patterns by encouraging teams to work in more focused ways, rather than regularly staying late. Finally, they should differentiate between creative and functional spaces – an open plan office is not always conducive to all types of productivity. So create different spaces for specific purposes.


Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group.


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