Are interruptions detrimental to our creativity? The true costs of helping our colleagues.

The trouble with open plan office spaces is that we are faced with disruptions to our working day. When we have a large workload and we need to focus on a task, being interrupted by colleagues asking for help or vying for attention is a familiar frustration for office workers.

Communications in open plan offices are free and easy but these types of work places are also a breeding ground for distraction. When we are faced with interruptions it is usual to hanker after some private space and the peace and quiet it, offers.


Professionals familiar with time management techniques often try to specify quiet times in their offices.

The logic appears to be sound in utilising both of these techniques, yet in a recent paper published in the journal Applied Psychology, researchers in Switzerland and Germany detail their findings stating that periods of quiet time were harmful to the achievements of colleagues who sought and gave help.

A study was conducted by Urs Fischbacher, Cornelius König Philipp Käser of the University of Zurich involving 168 undergraduates; they were paired up into 84 teams of help givers and help seekers. One person from each team watched one of two 20 minute movies with the other team member watching the other. Subsequently each person was asked to answer as many questions as possible regarding both movies using a computer.

The questions relating to the movies they had seen were designed to be easy to answer from memory whilst the questions about the other movie involved the participant having to search for the information online. All of the undergraduates were given the incentive of a cash reward and the help-givers were informed that they would receive extra payment based on their partner’s performance; this ensured that they were motivated to help their partner.

One of the scenarios replicated a typical free and easy open plan office, the help-seekers in each pair were allowed to interrupt the help givers at any time through an onscreen interface.

The help-seekers had the power to instantly message team mates with regards to the movie that they hadn’t seen, rather than searching online for the answers to the these questions this meant that the help givers had no choice but to stop their activities and type an answer to their question.

One might expect that this scenario would save the time of the help-seeker without proving to be too much of a hindrance for the help-giver, but  the findings of this study proved that these pairs performed no better than the teams in the controlled condition where the pairs were only allowed to focus on their own work. The cost of these interruptions to the performance of the candidates was larger than anticipated and the researchers stated that the overall benefits of the participants helping each other might have been overestimated in previous studies.

Another scenario simulated an office during a stipulated quiet hour’s period.

The help- givers were allowed to designate on a minute by minute basis, half the time as quiet time, during which they would not be disturbed. This handed some control to the help-givers where it would have been a limitation for the help-seekers.

As a result the help-givers were able to complete the more challenging questions during periods of quiet, leaving the easier questions for when they were likely to be interrupted. It was at this stage that the studies most surprising discovery was made-both candidates performed worse where the help-givers were able to choose undisturbed time periods compared with when the help-seekers could interrupt at any time.

By further analysing the behaviour of the candidates the researchers deduced that the performance of the help-givers in particular suffered when they kept switching between quiet time and helping time. Their theories suggest that they were distracted by structuring the different time periods. In comparison the help-givers who structured their quiet time into fewer, longer stretches performed better.

What lessons can we learn in real life?

We should be cautious about taking data from a study too literally but the results do suggest that it is important to think about the structuring of periods for quiet time and for help-giving.

In an office environment where certain members of a team hold more expertise and understanding than their peers then it might be beneficial to allow interactions and help-giving between team members at anytime. It is probable that a few minutes of one worker’s time could save hours of time for another employee.

It is probable that a few minutes of one worker’s time could save hours of time for another employee.

Despite the findings of this study which illustrate that open interruption is largely beneficial for collaborators in the workplace it is still important to encourage people to try to help themselves where possible. Interruptions to people’s time shouldn’t be made lightly as there are frequently high costs to be incurred as a result of employees being disturbed from their own work.

Fixed hours of office quiet time are no quick fix even though this concept might seem appealing. The researcher’s candidates were found to only benefit from periods of quiet time that lasted for a long enough duration. It is also important for the structuring and adhering of these stretches of quiet time not to become a distraction themselves.

Finally it should not be taken for granted that employees will intuitively know how to best utilise quiet times. It was expected that the help-giving candidates would use their quiet time to work on the challenging questions but most of them didn’t do this.

If you are a manager who is going to structure periods of quiet time in an office then you should consider sharing and informing the staff members of techniques that they can use to make the most of this time. If you are an employee who is already working under these conditions then it might also be beneficial for you to consider how you manage your quiet time.

Attached Images License: Creative Commons image source

About the author: Serge is the founder of a hand-picked list of gift ideas for home and office.


How have YOU found interruptions affect you? What have you found to be your better solutions?

Sign Up Now

* We don't like spam either so we won't share your email with anyone else.


  1. Geek Girl

    Things like this give us insights and help us think outside the box when making decisions about how changes will impact the work environment.

  2. Mark Walsh says:

    A good study this Patricia

    I’ve worked in this type of envirnoment and have also been a giver in terms of sharing knowledge.

    I can totally agree that it has cost me time when I needed to focus on a particular project however I appreciate the expense of not assisting others. There has to be some responsibility taken by the people looking for knowledge not to become too dependant on a particular person.

    Although you always have to treat a particular study with a degree of caution the finding would seem to make sense.

    Thanks for sharing
    Mark Walsh recently posted…The Commitment of The Online EntrepreneurMy Profile

  3. Patricia — Interesting findings. Even solo entrepreneurs face the issue of “quiet time.” Is it better to read your emails as they come in or save them for a particular time of the day so they don’t interrupt your quiet — or productive time. I still don’t have the answer. This was a very timely post as my day today was one interruption after another with the final tweaks to a client’s website. Can’t ignore client interruptions, can we!
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…EMC Promotes Employee Engagement on Social Media as Good for BusinessMy Profile

  4. GeekGirl I thought this QUITE fit the more introverted.

  5. Mark I absolutely agree that often research won’t bear out with our own anecdotal evidence. Thank YOU for mentioning the balance of it all.

  6. Jeannette there are many more studies that bear out the destructive nature to productivity of interruptions. Sometimes you just have to INTERRUPT the interruptions.

  7. It def. was an interesting study. Open plan offices are great in some ways, but the time drain has a a huge potential in a way that separate offices don’t . But as Jeanette said , even for a person working on their own, distractions come at you from all directions, email being just one.
    Ultimately it comes down to the self discipline of the individual to shut out intrusions whether physical or online. eg. using software such as ‘whiteroom’ that fills your screen and doesn’t allow you to get distracted by elements on your computer.
    A.K.Andrew recently posted…Receiving a Sunshine Award for BloggingMy Profile

  8. That self-discipline is so necessary AK.

  9. That was really interesting. I was thinking about myself in each of these situations. I need a certain amount quiet time to get myself organized. To many distractions lead to not accomplishing my daily or weekly goals. However, some distraction can have some benefits when it comes to creative ideas and brainstorming. I guess it is really an individual thing. :-). I loved to insight form these studies.
    Susan Cooper recently posted…A Thanksgiving Day Prayer To YouMy Profile

  10. Multi-tasking isn’t all it is cracked up to be so, quiet and focused time continues to rule in productivity!

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This