Fresh insights into workplace interruptions

Sophie Leroy
Sophie Leroy. Marc Studer photo

By Douglas Esser
You are working intently on something when you’re interrupted and forced to work on something else. With demanding emails, texts, phone calls and meetings, interruptions are a common, irritating workplace experience.

But, there are ways to limit the negative impacts, said Sophie Leroy, an associate professor in UW Bothell’s School of Business.

Leroy has made interruption — that moment of transition and the effect on performance — her field of study for more than 10 years.

From Task A to Task B

In recent research, Leroy suggested a simple way to help the brain control the situation and focus attention on the next task. Now, Leroy is taking a broader look at interruptions, with implications for leadership and opportunities for creativity.

Most similar research looks at the difficulty workers have in getting back in the flow of a disrupted task. More interesting for Leroy, who earlier worked as a business consultant, is the effect going forward on the new, interrupting task — often as important as the task that was interrupted.

“An interruption is asking us to shift our attention, and we don’t do that very well.”

Leroy’s research found that the brain has a hard time moving from Task A to Task B, because part of the brain is still thinking about Task A, especially if there’s a deadline.

“In order to perform at your highest capacity, you have to invest all your cognitive resources into what you are doing,” Leroy said. “So, if part of your cognitive resources are somewhere else, it means you’re not processing information as fully. Your ability to perform at a high level is going to be impaired.”

Leroy coined the term “attention residue” to describe Task A lingering into Task B. In addition, she developed a way to give the brain temporary closure, called a “ready to resume” plan.

First, a simple act

In research published in Organization Science in 2018 with Theresa M. Glomb, a colleague at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Leroy tested the ready to resume plan.

It’s as easy as this: When interrupted, take a minute to write down where you were in a project and what you had planned to do next.

“The simple act of briefly reflecting on and planning one’s return before switching attention helps employees cognitively set aside the interrupted task,” the research found.

Leaving that trail of breadcrumbs gives the brain control, Leroy said.

“It allows the temporary, cognitive closure that makes the attention switch possible,” she said. “Once people switch their attention more fully, their performance on the interrupting task is able to go up again.”

The research has been reported or referenced in the Harvard Business Review, Time, The Economist, GEO, NBC, and locally in the Seattle Times and on KING 5. The work is in line with Leroy’s previous research into multitasking and open workplaces.

Next, a broader look

Now, Leroy is taking a wider look at interruptions with new research questions. For example, are self-interruptions different from imposed interruptions? How are researchers in other fields, such as medicine, looking at the same phenomena?

“What is fascinating about this world of interruption is all the shapes that it can take,” Leroy said.

Also intriguing is when interruptions may be useful, such as taking a break or making creative connections.

“Some research has shown that, under very specific conditions, switching between tasks is actually positive for creativity because creativity requires your brain to function a little differently,” Leroy said. “An interruption may make you think about an old problem in a very different way.”

Productivity versus quality

Often, research on workplace interruptions has focused on task performance and errors, but Leroy said it’s about more than productivity.

“Interruptions affect the quality of our information processing, the quality of our decisions and work. They can also affect the quality of leadership,” said Leroy, who came to UW Bothell in 2014 and teaches both management and leadership courses.

Leroy was one of the first people in the field of organizational behavior to research interruptions. “I really wanted to understand what happens to the brain when we transition so often and how it affects the quality of our work and our ability to perform.”

Now, interruptions are a growing field of research with an expanding body of knowledge. Leroy would like to write a book on the subject — if she can get around to it.

“We all struggle with time.”

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