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Cost of Interruptions: $588 Billion and Growing

We’ve just finished some research where the results stopped us dead in our tracks: unnecessary interruptions cost U.S. businesses $588 billion per year.  Such interruptions come from many sources, including instant messaging, spam e-mail, telephone calls, and the Web.  These are the very technologies we see as making companies more efficient.

Our report,  The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity, is the first in-depth look at a problem that results in 28 billion lost man-hours per annum in the United States.  Technology promised to make workers more efficient, but it has the potential to cost companies billions unnecessarily.  We surveyed over 1000 executives and knowledge workers to find out how interruptions impact their work and what they do to counter the impact of unnecessary interruptions – and we were shocked by the results.  A new challenge awaits companies in the knowledge economy: the tools which serve as a lubricant and keep knowledge flowing, such as e-mail, the Web, and instant messaging, interrupt knowledge work as well and cause significant downtime.

The first step is admitting the problem.  Managers need to recognize that 28 percent of each knowledge or information worker’s day may be wasted due to unnecessary interruptions.

In looking at interruptions, it is important to determine whether something is important, urgent, or both.  Many knowledge workers simply do not differentiate, or see everything as both important and urgent.  Importance can also vary, based on the needs of the group or organization.

Interruptive events can be divided into several categories.

– Total interruptions.
– Dominant interruptions.
– Distractions.
– Background activities.

In addition to the above, interruptions may be divided into passive and active interruptions.  Active interruptions are initiated by the very person who chooses to be interrupted by them.  Passive interruptions come from others, and arrive via e-mail, the phone, the Web, a pager, a mobile phone, and instant messaging, just to name a few.

Modern technology has increased the variety of ways and the ease by which a knowledge worker can interrupt, or be interrupted.  Compounding this, the manner in which people work has changed dramatically, and all indications are that more change is in the air.  For example, e-mail has become a staple of communication both internally as well as externally.  But compared to five or ten years ago, how many e-mail messages does one receive today?

An additional issue occasioned by the knowledge economy is that the line between work and one’s personal life tends to blur.  The trend began slowly, as knowledge workers were enabled to check voicemail and, later on, e-mail, from home and on the road.  Today, many people feel that they are at work 24×7.

On the other side of the equation, as mentioned throughout the report, it is typical for workers to read their personal e-mail, make personal phone calls, and even surf the Web recreationally from their offices.  The job will fall to companies to ensure that the lines between work and home do not become too blurred.

Work must go on, despite interruptions.  Using the right tool, instant messaging v. e-mail v. the telephone, will minimize the impact of interruptions in many cases.

Still, knowledge workers can be their own worst enemy.  The majority of knowledge workers we talked to tend to open a new e-mail immediately upon notification.

You can read the executive summary for the report and see for yourself.