September 23, 2021
Welcome to phase two of the pandemic work cycle, where people and organizations are contemplating how work will be patterned in the future. The consensus appears to be that there will be about a fifth of the population who will strongly prefer to work entirely from home, another fifth who will prefer to return to the office, and three-fifths who prefer some hybrid schedule combining work from home and work in the office.
The success of working from home has been a surprise to most executives. One big surprise is that productivity has increased, not declined. A second is that the majority of employees really enjoy it. (An unexpected result, according to our research, is that employee perceptions of their boss have improved.)
There are many obvious advantages of working from home. It begins with avoiding the time, expense, and grind of a commute to and from work. Several other benefits occur. There is, we believe, one important dimension of working from home that may not be quite so obvious. In most cases, when you are working from home, you have greater control over the kind and frequency of interruptions that you experience. (Yes, we know that a pet can unexpectedly appear or that a young child may burst in. But, in general, you can close the door without offending anyone.)
Interruptions play havoc with productivity. When a person is working on a report, preparing a presentation, or trying to think through a complex issue, having a colleague drop by for casual conversation or someone calling on the telephone can cause a definite decline in the quantity and quality of what you were doing. When that happens multiple times, overall productivity tanks.
Studies conducted by researchers found that when students who were writing short essays were interrupted for one minute with a different task to complete, then returned to writing their essay, they showed a significant decline in performance. This was despite the fact that they were given extra time to compensate for the interruptions. ,.
Most executives agree that part of the benefit from being in the office is the social connections that are formed in the casual interactions that occur. Lunchroom and kitchen conversations have value. But the value of time in the office may also be enhanced if we learn to better control interruptions. Putting a note on your door saying, “Working on a project until 12:30. Contact me after that.” Or, if you have a walled office, just closing the door sends a clear message.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, wakes up at 4:00 AM each morning. When asked why he does that, his answer was that he has more control over his morning than he does the rest of his day. That’s one way to avoid interruptions. For those of us who prefer sleeping in longer, we need to find other ways to avoid being interrupted and have better control over our work environment.
The story of Ulysses is the classic illustration of the importance of controlling your environment as a way to manage your behavior. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ hauntingly beautiful music, but he knew that it lured sailors to steer their ships into the rocky shore. His solution was to have himself lashed to the mast so that he could not turn the helm. Then he ordered that the sailor’s ears be filled with wax so they could not hear the Sirens’ song. The ship sailed safely by the Sirens, and he was able to enjoy their music.
Our solutions to controlling our work environment will undoubtedly be less dramatic, but hopefully effective. It will make working at the office more efficient and help to make the hybrid work schedule an optimum solution.
1. Draheim, C., Hicks, K. L., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Combining Reaction Time and Accuracy The Relationship Between Working Memory Capacity and Task Switching as a Case Example. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 133-155. doi: 10.1177/1745691615596990
2. Foroughi, C. K., Werner, N. E., Nelson, E. T., & Boehm-Davis, D. A. (2014). Do interruptions affect quality of work?. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 56(7), 1262-1271. doi: 10.1177/0018720814531786
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(This article was originally published on Forbes)
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