Dealing with workplace disruptions

Workplace intrusions — when one co-worker stops by another's desk for social or work reasons, interrupting their task — usually have a negative stigma. They’re often considered pesky, distracting and momentum-killing.

But an Arizona State University professor says we’re looking at this all wrong. In fact, these intrusions, if done the right way, can be energizing. And he’s got the data to prove it.

Mike Baer’s research paper, “To what do I owe this visit? The drawbacks and benefits of in-role and non-role intrusions,” co-authored with ASU Associate Professor David Welsh, investigates the dynamics of various types of workplace intrusions. His results suggest that intrusions may lead to beneficial employee outcomes in addition to the adverse outcomes previously demonstrated in the literature. 

ASU News spoke to Baer, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship in the W. P. Carey School of Business, about his research and nuanced findings.

Question: What made you decide to write a research paper on this topic?

Answer: We read in the news and books about how bad workplace intrusions are, with co-workers portrayed as “time thieves.” But as authors and researchers, we started to look at our experience. We could think of many situations in which intrusions led to interesting research projects and energized us throughout the rest of the day. So, we questioned whether it was true that intrusions are always bad. We wanted to dig deeper into which types of intrusions tend to be somewhat negative and which intrusions might also be positive.

Research has typically focused on how intrusions negatively impact task performance, given that they require people to shift away from the task and refocus on something else. From that perspective, intrusions are a burden to employees. However, there are lots of other performance-related outcomes that we care about in organizations. One of these outcomes is whether employees provide emotional and social support to their co-workers and help those co-workers complete their assigned tasks. We theorized that certain types of intrusions would foster more of these citizenship behaviors that are incredibly valuable to organizations.

Q: It almost seems as if this is especially true for creative workspaces as opposed to a manufacturing or call center job?

A: Absolutely. We looked at two different types of intrusions. We put them in two buckets. There are "in-role” and “non-role” intrusions. An in-role intrusion is when a co-worker comes by to ask you about how a project is progressing or to hand off part of a project. Non-role intrusions are unrelated to the work at hand. They encompass coming by to socialize or engage in small talk, such as asking who won the ballgame or querying about what you did over the weekend.

We proposed these two general types of intrusions would have different effects on employees throughout the day. Confirming our proposals, we found that when intrusions are not related to the work, such as small talk, they reduced employee engagement during the day. When an intrusion is unrelated to what employees are currently doing, it incurs mental “switching costs.” Employees must reorient their brain away from work and toward more social activities. The stark difference between work and social domains pulls employees out of their workflow, reducing employees’ engagement throughout the day.

In contrast, we found that when employees were intruded upon with work-related content — such as a co-worker asking how a project was going, or even assigning more work — their engagement increased. These in-role intrusions acted as a challenge that reenergized and focused employees. To explain this effect, I want to talk about stress for a second. There are a couple types of stressors that employees experience in the workplace. The first type is called a hindrance stressor because they distract without providing a benefit to employees. Hindrances include things like a broken printer, bad Wi-Fi and a light that flickers overhead. The other type is called a challenge stressor. They’re things like time pressure and workload. These stressors require us to expand our capabilities to overcome the challenge. In-role intrusions — which often do increase time pressure and workload — act like challenge stressors, causing employees to push harder and be more engaged in their work throughout the day.

Q: In our newsroom, it’s set up where employees are seated near one another so we can have these impromptu encounters and feedback. It actually works well. Is this the kind of thing you’re touting?

A: Yes, it is. I'm glad you brought up collaboration because that wasn't something I hit on earlier. We thought that both types of intrusions would improve collaboration. If somebody is coming by to talk to me about what happened over the weekend, that provides an opportunity to transition to work matters. Accordingly, we thought non-role intrusions might lead to spontaneous collaboration. Surprisingly, none of the three studies showed that that non-role intrusions, like small talk, led to collaboration. Rather, we found that only in-role intrusions were beneficial for collaboration. When co-workers intruded on employees to ask them about how their tasks were going or assign them additional things, these work-related topics sparked collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

You ask an important question about the point at which intrusions get to be too much. We didn't examine those exact effects in our research study, but it is something that I can talk about based on what we know about intrusions. If you are constantly expending mental energy switching between topics throughout the day, you're not able to accomplish your core tasks. It gets to be too much when employees have so many things going on through the day that they can’t realize the burst of energy they get from intrusions. Let's say I'm intruded upon by a co-worker and get a burst of energy. However, just as I start pushing harder to overcome that challenge, I get interrupted again. This second intrusion might kill the renewed energy I gained from the first intrusion.

We also know from research that the switching costs we incur are greater when the intrusive content is different from what we're currently doing. So, let's say I'm working on one research project and a co-worker intrudes on me to ask about that particular project. Our research indicates that intrusion will spark engagement and collaboration that are beneficial for the particular project. But, if I have three different co-workers coming by to talk to me about three different projects that are very different from that project, it’s likely going to be a mental load and drain I can’t handle. I'm going to end up trying to multitask, which typically doesn’t work.

Q: The pandemic has given rise to remote work and situations that are designed to reduce intrusions in many ways. As organizations contemplate bringing people back to the workplace, how might this look?

A: Organizations are struggling with whether they should bring employees back to work all the time, part of the time, or to simply keep employees entirely remote. These different approaches can each provide benefits to employees and organizations. As organizations decide on the “right” approach, they need to ensure they are adequately considering how that decision will affect the day-to-day aspects of the work. Yes, employees may appreciate having the flexibility of not having to come into the office. Although they may feel less intruded upon in that situation, from an organizational perspective they will be missing out on the benefits that come from those in-person interactions.

Apple, for example, has come out and said that they see the random in-person encounters that people have throughout the day as a core part of the innovations and collaborations that makes Apple what it is. Apple has said that when it is safe to do so, employees will need to be in the office at least three days a week, which is not negotiable. Although some employees are pushing back against this approach, Apple has essentially said that the benefits of in-person interactions — and the unavoidable intrusions — outweigh the detriments.

Then you have other companies, for example, like Twitter, who are saying that employees can work remotely forever, even after the pandemic is over. I would say to companies that are making these decisions, be careful that you're not, in the guise of doing something beneficial, cutting down on the type of intrusions that lead to collaboration, engagement and beneficial citizenship behaviors. They may be increasing employees’ task performance a bit, but are they losing the support and help that stem from intrusions? These organizations might find that the increased task focus is not worth the cost to the social fabric of the organization.

Q: What are the takeaways for employees from this research?

A: Employees generally think of intrusions as bad: “I'm not going to come into the office today because I don't want to be intruded on.” I've heard that many times. I’ve said it myself on multiple occasions, thinking that because I needed to get things done, I should avoid the office for that day. Employees should be aware that there are benefits that come from intrusions. These benefits are often hidden because what more easily comes to mind is, “Ugh, I got distracted.” The benefits to engagement, collaboration and helping behaviors are often hidden. Across our three studies, however, we consistently saw that employees were experiencing these benefits.

I would also counsel employees to be aware of when and for what reason they are intruding on their co-workers throughout the day. Are you interrupting them to talk about the game or your family? Are you there to discuss last night’s “Game of Thrones” episode? Those intrusions can help build and maintain relationships, but they typically have a negative effect on employees’ immediate job performance. My advice would be to hold those topics for lunch or a break.

In contrast, employees might be afraid to interrupt their colleagues with work-related matters, thinking, “Oh, I'm going to distract them, and that would be a negative.” Be aware that in-role intrusions, when not taken to the extreme, can provide a variety of benefits to employees and, ultimately, their organizations.

5 tips for managing intrusions

1) Be aware that trying to avoid all intrusions may cause you to miss out on meaningful benefits.

2) Think of work-related intrusions as challenges that motivate you to work harder rather than thinking of them as an unnecessary distraction.

3) Harness the opportunity that intrusions provide to share information and bounce ideas off your co-workers.

4) If you’re a leader, consider implementing work arrangements that facilitate the work-related intrusions that can energize employees and foster collaboration.

5) If you’re intruding on others, save your social, non-work topics for breaks rather than consistently dropping by your co-workers' desks unannounced.

Top graphic by Chad Musch/ASU Visual Communications

Marshall Terrill
marshall.terrill@asu.edu