EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

September 20, 2013

Column: Biggest office time-wasters are other workers

Forget that game of computer solitaire. The biggest culprits in wasting office workers’ time are other office workers.

A variety of managerial and academic studies confirm that seemingly self-evident fact, Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger reports.

The problem has been exacerbated apparently by workplaces with open floor plans and low-walled cubicles, fewer private offices or those with floor-to-ceiling glass for that productivity-enhancing fishbowl effect, and those communal gathering places — like the old water cooler, only with couches.

The idea is that encouraging employee interactions will produce useful, profitable ideas like anti-gravity machines and death rays. Instead, it seems workers talk about sports and sex, which would both seem to be useful fields of endeavor but not if your company produced, for example, truck axles.

Instead, the open plan, according to The Journal, has “an unintended downside: pesky, productivity-sapping interruptions.” And there’s data to prove it.

“Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than email or phone calls, which employees feel freer to defer or ignore,” according to a study in the journal Organization Studies.

That suggests one quick way to boost productivity: bad manners.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, find cubicle dwellers are interrupted 29 percent more often than those in private offices. A study by a Michigan State psychologist shows it takes just over two seconds to lose a train of thought but 25 minutes to fully pick it up again.

The Journal says more than 6,500 workers each year download a free “Interrupters Log Work Sheet” to help them analyze and eliminate sources of distraction.

What does not seem to be addressed in any of these studies is how much productive time is wasted filling out forms, logs, questionnaires, time sheets and computer Q-and-As on how much time is being wasted.

Now, go back to playing solitaire on your computer.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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