08/19/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Interruption Rich

Open office designs promote flexibility and space conservation. When combined with multiple electronic communication systems an interruption-rich work environment is created. Evidence shows exhaustion, error rates, stress, anxiety and physical ailments increasing with frequent interruptions.

A Rice University study published in the Academy of Management Review distinguished four types of work interruptions; intrusions, breaks, distractions and discrepancies. The study looked at the type of work and the personality style of the employee to discuss the impact of each type of work interruption.

An intrusion is defined as an unexpected encounter initiated by another person that brings an individual's work to a temporary stop. Examples include unscheduled personal visits or phone calls. A recent Wall Street Journal article identified face-to-face interruptions greatly exceed phone calls and emails because the latter can be deferred.

Time management proponents advocate managing intrusions by controlling their timing and length of time. Examples include establishing certain times to check emails, return phone calls and limiting the time given the face-to-face interrupter. According to several studies, once interrupted it may take more than 25 minutes for people to get back to task and even more time to get back to their prior level of concentration.

Interruptions increase anxiety in situations where the person is already experiencing insufficient time to meet a deadline, or deeply engaged in a complicated activity. Even after a brief interruption, the Journal of Experimental Psychology noted error rates skyrocketing. Positive consequences of an interruption can occur should it result in an information exchange that is critical to the quality or completion of the task at hand.

Breaks are planned or spontaneous interruptions from work. A break is different from an intrusion because it's anticipated or self-initiated. The purpose of a break is to provide idle time or recreation to rejuvenate.

Breaks are generally viewed positively, but can have negative consequences. Frequent breaks or extended breaks may result in the person forgetting details, requiring a longer startup period and/or procrastinating the task. However, frequent breaks are needed to reduce fatigue with boring, physically strenuous or repetitive tasks. Positive aspects of breaks when working on complicated, intense work include mental recovery time and time for the subconscious to process information.

Distractions are psychological reactions to triggers that interrupt focused concentration. Cognitive interference demonstrates how a person's concentration is affected by a distraction. Our working memory stores information until we use it. We store linguistic information and analog and spatial information separately. Distraction occurs when stimuli compete for the same working memory resources. Listening to the lyrics of a song while attempting to draft a report would be a distraction. But listening to lyrics while drawing a picture would not be distracting. And once the memory is stored in long-term memory, it no longer requires attention so environmental stimuli would not be as distracting.

Discrepancies occur when things happen differently than one expects. People tend to process information automatically, consistent with their expectations. When contradictory information is received it interrupts that process and produces an emotional reaction. That emotional reaction stops the automatic, efficient information processing. Hesitation is a natural reaction when discrepancies are recognized. Acknowledging discrepancies can have positive life changing and/or negative paralyzing consequences.

Most literature focuses on managing and reducing interruptions, yet we keep taking doors off, lowering cube walls and expecting calls and texts answered. Some companies now have "privacy rooms" and "interruption-free zones" mimicking the "sterile-cockpit rule" which prohibits interrupting pilots during critical times.