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Natalie Tillack
report 10 min read

Distractions at Work: How Interruptions Affect Productivity

With a significant increase in remote work, so does the usage of team communication tools like Slack and MS Teams. By combining existing research studies with our own data and insights, we analyze how instant messaging affects productivity at the workplace.

Interruptions at work

With a significant increase in remote work, so does the usage of team messaging tools. The question of whether these tools help or distract us in productivity surfaces throughout teams, and is a variation of the well-known problem of how strongly interruptions at work distract workers from their actual work. In this article, we analyze the relationship between the usage of instant-messaging affects productivity, by combining existing studies with our own analyses and research. This field is incredibly young, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We compare the workarounds of different teams to cope with that problem and give examples of solutions in the space.



Slack and Microsoft Teams usage is growing

Our analysis compares the daily active users of the 2 most used instant messaging tools for teams and reveals that in 2020, Slack and MS Teams summed up to 230mn daily users [Source: Statista (2020), The Verge (2020), Business Wire (2019)].

In the same year, Google Suite surpassed 2bn monthly active users [Source: Axios (2020)].

Growth of Slack and MS Teams Comparison of the daily active users of Slack and MS Teams.

Not only does the total number of users rise, so do the activities: Our calculations also reveal that

almost 7bn actions happen per day on Slack,

including uploading and commenting on files, performing searches, and, importantly, interacting with apps.1

This shift in how we collaborate online reflects how people are subconsciously moving conversations about files and tasks away from daily emails and workflow apps, and into communications via channels.



The loss of productivity through Slack & MS Teams

Interruptions at work can be a key barrier to managing your time effectively and, ultimately, can be a barrier to your success.

Think back to your last workday, and consider for a minute the many interruptions that occurred. There may have been phone calls, emails, colleagues stopping by your desk, or anything else that unexpectedly demanded your attention and, in doing so, distracted you from doing your task at hand.

Our analyses show that due to missing information and the related communication around work items, companies all over the world lose approximately $1.2bn per day. In other words:

$1.2bn per day are lost worldwide through missing information or context on work files.2

In our extensive research, we have found that the problems can be clustered in 2 areas:

1. Information overflow

Work interruptions are ubiquitous in today’s workplaces due to the proliferation of tools, and a growing emphasis on collaboration and open workspaces. Although a large body of research on interruptions has accumulated over the last two decades, this research is scattered across disciplines, with little integration. While this fragmentation indicates the complex nature of interruptions, it has also led to inconsistencies in how interruptions are defined and studied.

Interruptions on Slack are the main source of complaint from our employees.
CEO of a Software Company and Reasonal Teams User

In the work we do, we hear, ‘My time isn’t really my own. I have walk-ins. I have call-ins. I have interruption after interruption. Others manage my time. I don’t.’

The amount of interruptions play an important role, too: the average worker is interrupted somewhere between 4 to 12 times every hour. That’s one interruption every 15 minutes, in the best-case scenario.

Constant interruptions are known for their negative impact on productivity [Source: CHI (2005), CHI (2008)]. Perhaps the most disturbing truism about being interrupted is that it takes up to 23 minutes for your brain to get back to where it left off [Source: Spica Blog (2020)]. In addition to the minutes of potential productivity that slip away during these pesky distractions, your mental willpower becomes exhausted in the process. This means the more you’re interrupted, the easier it is to become interrupted again [Source: Forbes (2017) and Forbes (2016)].

Another research has found that in the financial services industry interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. The restart leads to another loss of 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes.

That's 372 minutes, or 6.2 hours every day, or 31 hours a week – almost a whole person, in productive time lost [Source: Washington Post (2015)].

Accounted in this calculation is not the negative long-term impact on employees:

  • Loss of motivation,
  • Reacting to only a selection/subset of people,
  • Demanding reactivity of the people you manage,
  • Coping mechanisms, such as cutting Slack for a full day, which often polarize the team and raise questions.

Interestingly, half of the interruptions come from internal sources [Source: CHI (2005)]. Improving collaboration and communication at work thus is a huge lever for productivity gains.

2. Information loss

By using instant messaging tools for quick communication, teams lose their “workflow hygiene”. Firstly, specialized workflow management tools are already cumbersome to use: we hear over and over again that maintaining Trello, Monday, Asana & Co. often creates stress and extra work. Secondly, by shifting task allocation and document collaboration (in parts) to channels, to-dos and edits get lost and need additional effort to locate.

On top of that, all of the decisions, files, and other knowledge that has been said or shared in these channels is lost there, as well.

Slack has somehow become our parallel knowledge base.
Investment Manager of an International VC and Reasonal Team User

A McKinsey report highlights that approximately 19% of an employee’s time is spent locating information and files and 14% is spent communicating and collaborating internally [Source: McKinsey Global Institute Report (2012)]. Both numbers show the huge potential that lies in minimizing the effort of searching and gathering data for collaboration.

[...] a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35%, the time employees spend searching for company information.
McKinsey Global Institute Report (2012)

Workarounds and tools trying to solve the problem

Having these insights is only the start. Companies have identified the productivity losses in the areas of team communication, knowledge management, and document collaboration, and are trying to come up with solutions.

  1. Workarounds

    • Many companies are trying to cope with the Slack overload, the team from Superhuman just published their internal guidelines of how and when to use Slack [Source: Superhuman (2020)].

    • One of our clients said they tried to structure their Slack in a way that only a topic is posted in a Slack message and the related discussion takes place within a thread.

    • Another of our Team users defined company-wide Slack-free times, where employees are not expected to answer to Slack messages immediately.

      These workarounds show that the pain points associated with instant-messaging in teams are becoming significant and that there is currently no sufficient solution for it.

  2. Tools

    • Integrations: Slack or MS Teams integrations are another way to limit your productivity loss. “95% of Slack app users surveyed say that using an app in Slack makes those tools more valuable.” ~ [Source: BusinessWire (2019)]

    • Workflow management: A few companies are trying to tackle the problem of information overload through a plethora of tools and channels used in teams. Shopify came up with their own internal workflow management software [Source: Shopify (2020)]. Newcomers like 'nuffsaid or Qatalog are bringing out an integrated version of workflow-management incumbents like Basecamp, Monday, Trello, or Asana. If the leap to having a single interface to manage your to-dos and communication is significant, is another question. These tools still need maintenance and remove the communication around work content another step away from the actual content.

    • Knowledge management: We figured that the key to effective collaboration lies in centralizing workflow management and communication around the actual work items so that the need for constant back-and-forths decreases. Companies like GoLayer.io or Smartsheet underpin this trend for niche verticals. We at Reasonal broaden the focus and make work on work-related files and documents automated and intuitive. See more on how we rethink online collaboration here.

All in all, we see that there is huge potential for re-thinking how we communicate around work content and what insights we can extract from the relationships between and actions around files:

The most powerful applications of social technologies in the global economy are largely untapped. By using social technologies, companies can raise the productivity of interaction workers—high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals — by 20-25%.
McKinsey Report

What to take away

The way we work is fundamentally changing. It’s becoming faster, more adaptable, and more collaborative. This change is fuelled by engagement. Whether you’re sending a message in a channel, launching a call in Zoom, sharing a Google file, or starting your day by checking the calendar app, every action you take to connect with your team via messaging channels to move your project forward adds up to a whole new way of working.

We have demonstrated that the losses in productivity through the increased use of instant-messaging tools like Slack and MS Teams are significant - and rising. Teams all over the world are struggling to cope with its implications, and we have found that there are mainly 2 levers that lead to productivity losses:

  • Information overload,
  • Information loss.

Firstly, the fact that team members are using more and more instant-messaging tools to “ask that quick question”, disruptions occur more and more frequently. As every interruption leads to a significant cut in the employee’s attention, the overall distraction is reported to be huge. Secondly, as teams are shifting discussions on work items and to-dos to channels, information discussed or shared is often lost, resulting in more searches, questions, and discussions online.

The fact that teams are trying to come up with their own workarounds, guidelines, or tools, shows the need and potential for new solutions to add tremendous value.

We at Reasonal tackle that problem by focussing on rethinking knowledge management by:

  • Centralizing communication around files, documents, and other work items, making sure information is not lost and double work is prevented;

  • Integrating with your tools to automate parts of your workflow management, decreasing both the need for maintenance and the need for another tool or interface to use, and delivering information wherever needed;

  • Gathering insights from the relationship between and actions around files, making sure you work on correct and up to date documents.


Footnotes

  • [1] Estimated from Slack (2019) and Business Wire (2019).
  • [2] Our model shows that there are around 1bn links created or shared via GSuite, Slack, and MS Teams. Our (conservative) assumptions are that 1 out of 10 times minor inefficiencies, such as asking a question about the status of the document, asking to resend a missing link, etc., arise; 1 out of 50 times, major hiccups, such as working on an outdated version, landing at an invalid link, etc., occur. With the average time lost for each occasion and the average knowledge-worker’s salary, we arrived at a total loss of $1.2bn per day.

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Natalie Tillack

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