Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Does Helping Others Hurt Your Creativity? The Cost of Interruption

You’ve come into the office ready to go – it’s going to be a productive day. You’re finally going to make some headway on that overdue blog post, or perhaps it’s a new design layout, or a complex spreadsheet. Yet, as soon as you find your focus, a colleague wheels over a chair and interrupts your flow, asking for help. Sound like a familiar frustration?

That’s the cost of modern open-plan offices – communication between workers is free and easy, but there’s also infinite opportunity for distraction. Perhaps you’ve fantasised about taking over your boss’s private cubicle, or maybe just pressing a mute button on the entire office. Just an hour or two of undisturbed peace.

Time-management gurus often champion the idea of specified office quiet hours. In a collaborative work environment, banning help-seeking interruptions entirely would be too drastic. But set aside periods for colleagues to seek help from each other and other periods for quiet working and you have the best of both worlds. The logic appears sound. Yet in a recent paper published in the journal Applied Psychology, researchers in Germany and Switzerland report that periods of quiet time actually harmed the performance of help-seekers and help-givers.

Time-management gurus often champion the idea of specified office quiet hours.

Philipp Käser of the University of Zurich, with colleagues Urs Fischbacher and Cornelius König, recruited 168 undergrads and formed them into 84 pairs of help-givers and help-seekers. Each partner in a pair watched one of two 20-minute movies, and their partner watched the other. Afterwards, each participant sat alone at a computer and had 30-minutes to answer as many questions as possible about both movies. Questions about the movie they’d seen were intended to be easy to answer from memory. Questions about the unseen movie were trickier and involved looking up information online. All the participants were incentivized with cash rewards and “help-givers” also received extra payment based on their partner’s performance (ensuring they were motivated to help).

In one condition, designed to simulate a typical relaxed open-plan office, the “help-seekers” in each pair could interrupt their partner anyim time they liked via an on-screen interface. So, rather than trawling through the script for information about the movie they hadn’t seen, they could instant message a query to their partner. In turn, he or she had no choice but to stop what they were doing and type an answer to the question. You might think this arrangement would have saved the help-seekers a lot of time, and without too much trouble for the help-givers.

In fact, the first surprising finding of the study was that overall, pairs performed no better when help-seeking was allowed compared with a control condition in which it was forbidden (akin to a strict office where everyone’s focused on their own work with no interruptions allowed). The performance cost of interruptions was greater than expected, and the researchers said the overall benefits of helping may have been overestimated in past research.

In one condition, designed to simulate a relaxed open-plan office, the “help-seekers” in each pair could interrupt their partner any time they liked.

Another condition was designed to simulate an office that uses a quiet hours policy. In this case, the help-givers in each pair could allocate, on a minute-by-minute basis, half the time as quiet time, during which they couldn’t be disturbed. This would obviously have been a hindrance for help-seekers, but it handed some control to help-givers, allowing them to complete all their trickier questions during quiet time, leaving the easy questions for when interruptions were likely. But here was the study’s most surprising finding – both help-seekers and help-givers performed worse under conditions in which the help-givers were able to choose undisturbed periods, compared with anytime help-seeking.

Zooming in on their participants’ behavior, Käser and his colleagues found that help-givers particularly suffered when they kept alternating between quiet time and helping time. It’s as if they got so bogged down with structuring the different time periods that they got distracted from their work. By contrast, help-givers who allocated their quiet time into fewer, longer stretches fared better.

So what are the lessons for real-life working? 

Of course every office situation is different and we must be cautious about extrapolating too literally from a lab study. That said, these results suggest it pays to think about the kind of conditions under which anytime help-seeking might be preferable to having controlled quiet times, or vice versa.

If you’re in an office where there is a large discrepancy in expertise or knowledge between staff, then allowing help-seeking and interruptions at anytime is likely to be highly beneficial, especially if a couple of minutes sacrifice from one team member will save hours or more for the person making the inquiry.

If there is a large discrepancy in expertise or knowledge between staff, then allowing interruptions at anytime is likely to be highly beneficial.

But even in such situations, this study shows interruptions shouldn’t be made lightly. Given the often high costs of being disturbed, the implication is that while remaining open to interruption is largely beneficial for collaborative teams, we should also encourage a culture in which people think twice before seeking help – first asking themselves if they can solve the query alone.

The policy of specified quiet hours may seem like an appealing compromise, but this study also showed that office quiet hours are no panacea. Käser’s participants only derived a benefit from decent stretches of quiet time. So consider a day or a half-day as compared to 1-2 hours. If the “quiet time” blocks are too short, the cost of shifting mental modes becomes a distraction in itself.

Lastly, we shouldn’t assume that staff will know intuitively how to make the most of quiet hours. Käser and his colleagues thought that help-givers would use quiet time to tackle harder questions, but most of them didn’t use their time strategically in this way. So if quiet hours are introduced in your office, it’s worth planning how you might make the most of them; or if you’re a manager, consider sharing some strategic pointers.

What’s Your Experience?

Do you set “quiet hours” at your office? How do you handle interruptions?

More insights on: Collaboration, Office Dynamics

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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