(Don't) Leave me alone!

MU study shows some workplace interruptions increase employee productivity

September 27, 2021
Contact: Pate McCuien,  573-882-4870,

Some people prefer working in a quiet environment. For them, interruptions can be annoying, especially when working on critical assignments. Now, new research from the University of Missouri has found that while some interruptions may negatively impact employees’ productivity, others may provide important work-related benefits.

This is an image of John Bush.

John Bush is an Assistant Professor in the Management Department at the Trulaske College of Business.

“We found key differences in the effects of work-related interruptions versus non-work-related interruptions,” said John Bush, an assistant professor in the Trulaske College of Business who conducted the research.

A work-related interruption is an unexpected encounter initiated by another person that disrupts an individual’s work but covers a work-related topic. For instance, a manager might stop by an employee’s desk to check on the status of an assignment or to assign a new project. This stands in contrast to non-work-related interruptions, which occur when an employee is interrupted to talk about a non-work-related topic, like sports or a new restaurant.

“Despite common perceptions that all interruptions are typically detrimental, we found that work-related interruptions increased employee engagement in work tasks. In addition, work-related interruptions had the added benefit of increasing the extent to which employees collaborated with others at work,” Bush said. “However, the impact of non-work-related interruptions was much less encouraging. Not only did non-work-related interruptions serve to reduce employee engagement, but, somewhat unexpectedly, they did not promote a meaningful increase in collaboration.”

The researchers found consistent results across three studies, which included participants from various industries and cultures. Bush said the findings paint a different picture than popular narratives about the role of interruptions at work.

“Whereas interruptions that were not related to work did not provide direct benefits to employees in our studies, work-related interruptions appear to benefit employee productivity in ways prior research has not considered,” Bush said.

Bush says this research is particularly relevant to the decisions organizations are making during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some businesses, such as Zillow and Twitter, have considered plans to permanently allow employees to work from home.

“Although many employees may prefer the flexibility of working from home, there are potential benefits they may be missing out on that come from in-person interactions,” Bush said.

Findings from this research paint the picture that non-work-related interruptions are best avoided. Although Bush’s research suggests these interruptions should be minimized, he says it isn’t necessary to ban them completely.

“Employers may want to limit non-work-related interruptions, but that doesn’t mean they should get rid of them all together,” Bush said. “There are interpersonal benefits, such as strengthened relationships, that can stem from these non-work-related interactions.”

“To What do I Owe This Visit? The Drawbacks and Benefits of In-Role and Non-Role Intrusions” is currently in-press and will be published in the Journal of Management in the coming months.

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