The impact of interruption
In the 1920s, research found that uncompleted tasks remain prominently in the mind because we remain tense until a job is done.
More recently, analysis of behaviour in high-tech offices has shown workers spend just 11-minutes on any one task before being pulled into something else, typically taking 25 minutes to get back to what they were doing.
It is little wonder that less than half of U.S. employees are satisfied with their jobs.
While interruption isn’t a modern phenomenon, it has certainly become a major issue in the 21st-century workplace, and it’s one that’s having a serious effect on both job satisfaction and, most crucially for businesses, productivity.
If companies want to nip the negative influence of interruption in the bud, it’s time they took a closer look at its impact and started addressing the key causes.
Driving workers to distraction
Technological progress was meant to help us work better and faster, but the dream of enhanced machine-driven efficiency hasn’t quite panned out.
Take, for example, instant messaging. After a review of workplace communications eight years ago, McKinsey estimated smart software could boost business productivity by up to 25%, cutting time spent sorting emails and searching for internal information.
The reality, however, has been very different. Instead of saving time, employees are sending 200 messages weekly – via services such as Slack – and are interrupted by an endless stream of notifications. Some ‘power users’ are firing out 1,000 messages per day.
Of course, company messaging apps aren’t the only problem. Emails, social media platforms, news alerts, TV bulletins, and traditional offline communications — phone calls, meetings, and desk discussions — also have a part to play in diverting attention.
But that’s also the key point. While tech has its benefits, the variety and number of different communication methods used are introducing multiple distractions into the working environment and, for individuals, this means constant multitasking and firefighting, preventing the important ability to work proactively rather than reactively.
For the majority, it’s difficult enough to concentrate on tasks, let alone finalise them; analysis reveals the mental blocks created by shifting between activities can cost employees as much as 40% of their productive time.
Becoming a master of time
From an operational perspective, the disruption created by always-on communication tools adds up to not just mass distraction, but also destruction.
When employees can hardly begin one project before being derailed by another task or query, business performance inevitably dips, unable to maintain the consistent speed, quality, and value today’s customers expect.
That’s not to mention the effect of chaotic working on mental health. In fact, addressing mental wellbeing at work can increase productivity by as much as 12%.
It’s obvious that a change is needed, and the most effective action companies can take is adjusting their perception of time — viewing it as a precious asset that’s equally as valuable as having money in the bank and adopting similar measures to spend it wisely. There is a simple two-step process that can be used to achieve this:
Taking back control:
Implementing time management practices isn’t about putting pressure on employees to speed up, it’s about measuring where time goes and identifying how it could be harnessed more effectively.
For example, an assessment might reveal that a worker is being interrupted by emails or messaging pop-ups that stop them working on an important project.
Using this data, senior management can then build processes to ease the pressure and increase focus, such as enabling individuals to allocate set hours for fielding questions and specific ‘do not disturb’ periods for key projects.
Taking the wider view, this approach can also be scaled up to the entire company. With systems that unite time tracking insight from every individual and corner of the organisation, businesses can gain a complete picture of overall activity and time use.
This enables them to better spot issues and opportunities for improvement: slimming down unnecessary meetings, tweaking complicated procedures, and identifying where collaboration could propel creative projects.
Planning for success:
The power of a checklist should never be understated. According to research by Harvard Business School, one of the greatest motivators for knowledge workers is not deadlines or fear of reprisals, but a sense of progress.
When a day includes tangible steps forward, 76% of employees class it as a ‘good mood’ day: one where they are fulfilled and driven. As a result, planning based on granular time records has serious potential to increase productivity and satisfaction.
By encouraging employees to build — and stick to — a structured time management plan, companies can help them prioritise and avoid distraction pitfalls.
With a clear idea of their core goals, individuals will be able to determine what’s truly important, not just urgent. Plus, the added bonus of this checklist-centric method is that it also fuels cumulative happiness: with every tick, individuals get a feeling of achievement that inspires them to keep aiming for more.
It’s easy to mistake high activity for productivity, but there’s a difference between looking busy and getting work done.
Businesses that see buzzing phones and Slack channels as signs of energetic progress need to move beyond the noise and take a deeper look. Because when they do, they’ll likely find that interruption is impacting employees from multiple directions and seriously slowing down performance.
Rather than assuming that time is flowing where it should, the modern company needs to know precisely how long every task and distraction takes.
Only then can procedures be adjusted to shield employees from distraction, give them the freedom to thrive and put an end to communication time thieves.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.