The large yet hidden price tag on interruptions

Do you know the damage that “Do you have five minutes?” can do?

– Do you have five minutes?

Haven’t we all experienced it? You are at the workplace, deeply concentrated. Finally, you are getting some solid work done. The door to your office (if you are lucky enough to have a door) goes up.

“Sorry for interrupting, but do you have five minutes? ”

Here are two things that are wrong about that question:

  1. The person disturbing is not sorry. Sorry is something you are when you have crashed someone’s car or lost your wedding ring.
  2. Most likely, in the best-case scenario, this interruption is costing the interrupter five minutes but will cost you ten.

Wait, what?

The interruption takes five minutes. After this, the interrupter has gotten some new answers and therefore has new momentum to continue his or her work. You, on the other hand, have just forcefully been pulled out of your work. Therefore your loss is 10 minutes. As I am writing this I can hear the voices of managers in my head saying:

Five minutes just to start working again? It doesn’t take that much time does it?

That is where the voices in my head are wrong! It is at least five minutes. After an interruption, we tend to do the following things before getting back to work:

  • Extra coffee break
  • Fact-checking what I just taught my colleague
  • Checking the news

Sometimes we do all three of them before returning to work. Oh wait, the voices in my head are back. They are saying that the things listed above are bad habits.

We gotta give the voices some credit.

True. Checking the news during work is a bad habit. But you would not have been checking the news if you weren’t interrupted in the first place. The real issue here is the interruption itself.

Costly habits.

This is bad business. Ask yourself; who is being interrupted? Often times it is the employees with the most knowledge. We tend to pay higher salaries to employees with knowledge. Therefore the habit of interrupting is expensive.

Just to be clear, interrupted time is not wasted time. Remember, the interrupter got his or her answer, so progress is made. And hadn’t it been for this progress, the interruption would never have taken place. Managers hate wasted time and would have gotten rid of it.

A more cost-efficient way of doing it.

Managers are not aware that it exists a more cost-efficient way of doing this. What if you made a new office rule? Something like this:

Interruptions/questions must take place during the first hour of the day.

Then you could urge people to do lighter tasks during the morning hours so that they are ready for questions. Questions will be answered. Progress will be made. And at a certain point, people can close the door to the office, and get some serious work done.

BY Arvid Knutsen

26 Mar 2018