Here’s how to handle workplace interruptions, according to science

Paradoxically, while all offices share certain universal features, each and every workspace is entirely unique. Virtually every office features desks, chairs, boardrooms, and a breakroom, but there’s no duplicating the actual people, personalities, and stories that bring a particular workspace to life. 

Arriving at a workplace as the new employee can feel intimidating, to put it mildly. Besides all of the technical responsibilities and duties that invariably come with a fresh professional start, new workers frequently have trouble acclimating to unfamiliar office surroundings and colleagues. One of the most common worries in this regard is how to navigate interrupting co-workers who are already engrossed in another project or piece of work. No one wants to be annoying or intrusive, but at the same time, in many instances the situation calls for just that.

While an adjustment period is normal and expected for everyone, if you feel like you’ve been stressing for too long over proper office etiquette and how to handle workplace interruptions, this article may prove beneficial for you. Let’s take a look at what two recent relevant research projects have to say about this nuanced yet relatable dilemma. 

The water cooler is half full: Even workplace interruptions offer an upside

There’s no reason to feel like the resident office pariah after interrupting a busy colleague to ask a question or deliver a message. There’s no denying that such disruptions have a way of taking our eyes off of the proverbial ball, but fascinating scientific research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology offers a reassuring take for the individual doing the interrupting. The study found such interruptions usually promote a greater sense of belonging among the interrupted. In other words, even if a co-worker may initially act annoyed or put off by the interruption, in more cases than not they actually appreciate being approached and included in whatever’s going on.

During a joint research effort conducted primarily at the University of Cincinnati, study authors uncovered that while office disruptions can absolutely drain energy and increase stress, those being bothered actually also report feeling a greater sense of “belonging,” subsequently promoting higher levels of job satisfaction. 

“We find that interruptions can actually benefit individuals from an interpersonal perspective — people feel like they belong when others come and talk to them or ask them questions, even while being distracted from their tasks,” comments study co-author Prof. Heather C. Vough of George Mason University in a press release.

So what can a nervous interrupter take away from these findings? Asking your colleague to step away from whatever they’re doing to help out with another matter, or answer a question, doesn’t have to be a major stressor. In fact, chances are, they’ll probably welcome the opportunity to take a break and engage in a few minutes of small talk. 

The type of interruption matters

Of course, not all interruptions are created equal. For instance, you may be pretty excited about a new pair of socks or snazzy new watch, but your teammates probably don’t need to stop what they’re doing just to throw you a compliment. Illuminating research just recently published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology earlier this year explains that the specific variety of interruption matters in a major way when it comes to workplace disruptions.

Scientists at the University of Queensland explain that it’s far more stressful for workers when they’re interrupted with requests to complete tasks they consider either irrelevant, unnecessary, or unreasonable. So, while a request to the billing department for an invoicing clarification would be deemed a reasonable disruption, those same accountants probably won’t react as well if asked to participate in a creative brainstorming session with the design team. 

“If a person is interrupted with a request to complete a task they perceive as illegitimate, which is pointless or outside their responsibilities, we found performance is compromised,” says Associate Professor Stacey Parker from UQ’s School of Psychology in a university release. “People believe these interruptions hinder progress on their usual work, which can lead to increased anxiety and cognitive difficulties.”

This project focused on interruptions that entail a tangible task, so tapping a colleague on the shoulder to chat about the weekend didn’t fall under this study’s purview. Still, these findings provide valuable insight regarding when is the right time to interrupt a colleague, and when it may be a better idea to leave the individual alone for the time being.  

“From an employee perspective, it’s important to understand how their requests may impact on their coworkers,” Prof. Parker concludes. “Before you interrupt a colleague with a task, stop and think about how they may perceive it and how their productivity will be affected. If it might be perceived as pointless or outside their role, perhaps find another way for it to be completed.”