Unforeseen challenges account for the most common interruptions when working from home, researchers have found. Here are some tips for employees and managers to remedy the issue.
There are clear advantages to hybrid work, such as increased autonomy and better management of home and work responsibilities. However, there are also plenty of disadvantages.
So how can we better manage interruptions when working remotely? Below, we draw on our own research to offer some potential solutions.
Six types of interruptions
- Intrusions – being interrupted by another person while working
- Distractions – attention being drawn to unrelated stimuli such as background noise or a pile of clothes that needs to be washed
- Breaks – stopping work for a period of time to recover or attend to other needs, such as nipping out to buy lunch, and then finding it hard to get back into work
- Multitasking – allocating attention to several tasks simultaneously, such as a work report while simultaneously helping children with homework
- Surprises – unexpected problems which cause individuals to stop what they are doing and assess the situation before deciding how to continue (e.g., losing internet connectivity in the middle of a Zoom meeting, a child unexpectedly coming home from school ill)
- Meetings – feeling forced to regularly attend meetings, particularly those perceived to be a waste of time.
What are the most common interruptions?
During April/May 2020, as part of a longitudinal online survey study investigating the impact of COVID-19 on work, we asked employees open-ended questions about what sort of challenges they faced when working from home, and how they overcame them.
Overwhelmingly, the largest proportion of participants reported interruptions as their major challenge, with 112 comments received from 95 people. These employees were 79 per cent female, 22-72 years of age (average age 42 years), and worked an average of 35 hours a week.
Just over 90 per cent worked from home on three or more days a week, and 74.2 per cent did so every day. The majority of them (86.4 per cent) were managers and professionals working in Australia (80 per cent ), the US (5.3 per cent) or The Netherlands (4.2 per cent).
Thematic analysis revealed the four most common types of interruptions were: 1) surprises – unforeseen challenges; 2) home distractions; 3) planned meetings; and 4) co-worker intrusions.
1. Surprises – unforeseen challenges
The largest proportion of comments(48 per cent), were related to surprises. These included internet connectivity trouble, lack of technical support and lack of feedback. These factors can make individuals feel isolated and lower productivity.
Respondents told us:
“My internet connection can be unreliable.”
“My house has been too cold.”
“My home internet bill has gone up and sometimes I exceed my data limit.”
2. Home distractions
Almost a third (28 per cent) of the comments were related to distractions from family or domestic duties while working from home. The absence of a private home workspace can blur the boundaries between work and home, impacting wellbeing and performance.
Participants said things like:
“I want to get housework done, or try to get multiple things done at once.”
“[I find it hard to] communicate to family that just because I am physically at home that doesn’t mean I’m available for personal matters or housework.”
“I get distracted by housework or the internet.”
3. Planned meetings
Twenty per cent of the comments referred to meetings preventing continuation with more important tasks.
Virtual meetings were particularly problematic due to the sheer volume of them, internet connectivity issues and difficulty interpreting social cues. The cognitive demands involved can lead to increased exhaustion.
Participants told us:
“Remote communication is more difficult and draining than in-person communication, e.g. phone calls dropping in and out.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to read the feel of the room/individuals in virtual meetings.”
“I’m attending too many video meetings and don’t have enough quiet time to get things done.”
4. Co-worker intrusions
Less than five per cent of the comments highlighted intrusions from co-workers while working from home. These included unreasonable expectations of availability from supervisors and colleagues, and others adding to their workload or extending the workday, which led to feelings of exhaustion, stress and anxiety.
However, some people also suggested that intrusions can be helpful, such as when co-workers provided immediate feedback, shared information and were open to collaboration.
Respondents told us:
“It can feel like you need to be more responsive to emails and messages than normal.”
“[My colleagues don’t] understand what my work hours are.”
How can we reduce interruptions?
Our findings suggest that while interruptions are prevalent and frustrating when working from home, sometimes they can also be helpful, such as when a colleague provides spontaneous but useful feedback.
We can’t avoid interruptions altogether, but we can control how we respond to and manage them. Here are some ways employees and managers can reduce interruptions.
- Talk to your manager about your equipment and software needs.
- Plan work so tasks are suited to the environment (e.g. home vs office).
- Increase flexibility in when you do your work, perhaps by working when the kids are asleep, or do tasks that require less attention when the kids are around.
- Set boundaries at home. This could mean designating a separate workspace away from the family or explaining to them the need for uninterrupted work time.
- Talk to family members, colleagues or other parents to find out how others manage work and home life.
- Put your camera on for video calls rather than audio alone to help deepen connections with others and avoid misinterpretations.
- Ensure you build in breaks between meetings, and limit the number of virtual meetings per day, so that you have time to recover.
- Plan meetings beforehand and manage expectations (e.g., create a meeting agenda, keep to time).
- Develop a work-from-home routine. For example, set specific times for starting and finishing the day, having lunch and taking breaks.
- Avoid work interruptions during your non-work time by switching off your work laptop and switching off notifications.
- Use time management techniques such as the Pomodoro technique (dividing work time into short blocks and taking short breaks in between blocks) to make more efficient use of time.
- Initiate a conversation with colleagues and your manager about availability expectations. This could alleviate the pressure to respond instantly and help colleagues to understand how their communications may be impacting others.
- Only check your inbox twice a day to avoid being constantly pulled away from your tasks and having to expend much energy getting back into them.
- Use “timeboxing” to help you plan core tasks around interruptions such as emails, meetings, and breaks
Tips for managers:
- Surprises are hard to anticipate, but they can be responded to adaptively. For example, manage a surprise request for feedback by acknowledging it and providing a response time for the future.
- Carve out time in your daily diary to respond to ad-hoc requests. Expecting surprises means you’ll be more prepared when they occur, freeing up cognitive resources to allow you to problem-solve efficiently. And if there are no surprises, you gain bonus time to get ahead on other tasks / projects.
- Express support towards your employees to help them deal with whatever issues they are facing. You may be able to help prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
- Encourage employees to plan ahead so that they only work from home when it is optimal for them.
- Encourage employees to connect and catch-up with each other. Informal connections allow employees to support one another, improving the quality of breaks, fostering meaningful connections and preventing loneliness.
- Support employee flexibility so individuals can take control over their working hours and location.
- Encourage employees to develop their own home and workplace schedules and routines to help them manage their responsibilities and reduce distractions.
- Keep the number of meetings you instigate to a minimum, and ensure each meeting has a clear agenda , so individuals know why it is important and why they need to be there.
- Plan shorter virtual meetings. This can improve efficiency and reduce “Zoom fatigue’.
- Have a conversation with your employees about availability expectations. This means everyone will have the same understanding about what is and is not expected.
- When working outside regular work hours, schedule emails and messages to arrive within core work hours to avoid intruding on others’ downtime while still getting your own work done.
- Refrain from over-monitoring employees by frequently checking up on them with emails/messages they feel pressured to respond to. Close monitoring is known to increase employee distress.
Sabreen Kaur, Anita Keller and Sharon K Parker also contributed to this article.
About the authors
Dr Caroline Knight is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Transformative Work Design, Future of Work Institute, Curtin University, Western Australia.
Sabreen Kaur is a PhD student in Management at the Monash Business School, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Dr Anita C. Keller is Associate Professor in Organizational Psychology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.
Professor Sharon K. Parker is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at Curtin University, and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, Curtin University.
This research was funded by the Western Australian State Government Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation (C1128000380, 2020).