IT employees such as CNC administrators and solutions architects may lose over $30,000 in annual productivity due to work interruptions, but a closer examination of those stoppages may help you gain much of that loss back.
William Belk conducted a survey of 4,000 High Performance Employees (Designers, Software/System Architects, Software Engineers, Product Designers, etc.) in industries such as Software, IT, Hardware, Financial Services, Creative, Marketing, Automotive, Architecture and Manufacturing, and found more than 80% of them face five or more interruptions per day. 40% face eight or more interruptions per day. While five, eight or more interruptions probably seem like a typical day for most, and perhaps even a highly focused day for some, if you actually track the costs associated with the daily interruptions the numbers are quite significant.
Belk cites some research on interruptions, or by it's more formal name, task-switching, that found on average we lose 23 minutes per task switch. A parallel in manufacturing would be change over time to go from using a production cell for one product to another one. The changeover in manufacturing has a definite start and finish so it's easy to measure, but the task-switching time lost for our high performance employees is much more hidden and almost impossible for us to measure. When we switch tasks and then try to go back to the original one, the extra time to retrace, remember, or get back into the flow of the activity we lost when we were interrupted are compounding as a whole, though we may not notice it within the tasks we're doing. The result, however, can be project taking longer, more mistakes, longer hours at work, more stress, or many other negative consequences that we can't directly trace back to the interruptions.
The interruptions that get the most notoriety are unscheduled meetings, pop in conversations, noise in open work spaces, checking emails, texts and chat messages. These certainly are a problem but there are also interruptions designed into our work days. Let's take a look at an example using the CNC administrator/architect role.
JD Edwards CNC are the system administrators and architects for the EnterpriseOne ERP software and the many other software/hardware involved, such as database, web servers, logic servers, web services servers, mobile services servers and many other integrated applications. The work activities include strategic projects and advanced problem solving as well as routine/repetitive tasks. The activities are scheduled, required on demand by request, and sometimes need immediate urgent completion. In larger companies there may be multiple CNC with the skills to cover the many different systems and tasks required. In small to midsize companies there may be only one person with the full set of skills or a subset of the skills.
For many larger and smaller companies the full set of tasks are not rationalized by skill set needed, scheduled, on demand, urgent, etc. Quite often the responsibility for any type of task falls onto each CNC. So when working on longer term projects or problem solving, there are designed interruptions involving first level user issues, identity and access management changes, code deployment (package build/deploys) and scheduled maintenance. Many of these tasks are by request, on demand and need to be completed within a reasonable time frame.
The result is a constant stream of focused work and interruptions throughout the day, sometimes evenings and weekends. Using a conservative salary plus overhead of $ 120,000 for Senior CNC, five interruptions causing 23 minutes of productivity loss for each instance, adds up to 479 hours per year or $ 28,750 of lost productivity per year. In the case of 8 interruptions that would add up to 767 hours or $ 48,600 of lost productivity for the year. Much of this productivity loss is hidden within overtime hours beyond the 40 hour week. In IT, for salaried employees 40 hours is no longer the standard. So this loss may not manifest itself into a cash loss directly from the productivity loss, but the stress, errors and turnover that may result from long work weeks will eventually show up in the bottom line for the company.
I will split the interruptions into two high level categories before reviewing some possible solutions. The first category is General Office Interruptions like unplanned meetings, emails, messaging systems, the internet, noisy neighbors, etc. The second category will be Role-Based Interruptions, which are the ones the ones designed into a job function like CNC. The first one is actually the more difficult one to gain control of and involves much more self diagnosis, resolve and strategy. The second one begins with a task rationalization, which may reveal opportunities to remove interruptions.
This is not an easy problem to solve, as some interruptions can be out of our control. However, there are some interruptions which are self induced, though these are not easy to break either. Deep work is the name of a working style which is the opposite of the interruption cycle- continuous flow of work, then an interruption, then shifting back into work, and so on. The following two articles provide some background about the deep work concept and strategies on overcoming these general office interruptions based on the research and writings of Cal Newport.
Sometimes daily interruptions are a result from not effectively tying tasks and activities to goals, which are in turn tied to higher goals, and so on. Some companies, like Google, have effectively managed this using the OKR methodology described in How to Use Google's and LinkedIn's Tool for Goal Setting.
While Meetings and Email are valuable communication tools, they're also major interrupters. Walking this fine line is a challenge, but some guidelines for managing both are offered in the following two articles.
Role-based interruptions are easier to resolve, as the solutions are based more on science and math than emotions and human nature. For our CNC example, the first step is to rationalize all the tasks which are done. As stated earlier, the tasks cover a broad spectrum from high level skills to routine, on demand to scheduled, urgent to "when you can get to it", and timing can be anywhere on the 24/7 calendar. Sometimes we make assumptions on how important or urgent tasks are, which may actually turn out to be false. The Eisenhower Matrix is a great tool to rationalize day to day tasks. The article, Why Personal Productivity Doesn't Lead to Team Productivity has an example that demonstrates how one can use the matrix to determine what is Important or Not Important and what is Urgent and Not Urgent. Eisenhower felt most people look at Importance and Urgency as the same and therefore do a poor job in prioritizing.
Importance is determined by how the task impacts the long term goals of the company, as well as how it utilizes the core skills related to the job. Urgency is determined based on being due now or later in the future. For example, implementing an AIS server for mobile use can improve users productivity therefore impacting revenue and/or profitability and would be considered Important and Not Urgent. The matrix will result in placing the tasks into four categories, Crisis, Strategic, Distraction and Elimination (or Delegation). The goal of the exercise is for the CNC, along with any Senior Level IT person, to find ways to spend more time on the Strategic, less time on the Crisis and no time on the Distraction and Elimination. The Strategic tasks should benefit the company as a whole whereas the others probably do not. The Strategic and perhaps Crisis tasks utilize the high level skills the Senior CNC has developed over many years. Distraction tasks are ones that do not. Automation and Delegation may be solutions to removing the Distraction tasks and any ones that fall into the Elimination (or Delegation) quadrant.
General office interruptions are fairly easy to recognize and, without a doubt, impact each of our work days. The hidden interruptions that are part of our role are more difficult to notice. They blend into our work day and when our internal measure of productivity is geared towards measuring how busy we were, we quite often fail to see the full cost of both types of interruptions. Together they may translate into anywhere from $ 28,000 to $ 48,000 of productivity loss for IT roles such as CNC administrators and architects.
The good news is that the role based interruptions are more easily solvable. Going through a task rationalization can highlight tasks that can be delegated, automated or eliminated. The time gained can be used towards strategic tasks and projects which are more important to the business and in building high value skills. Along the way it may also reduce stress, night and weekend work.