Excess Success?

An article in the 28 October 2009 Washington Post raised the specter of a massive breakdown of communications in the DC region as a result of the flu pandemic. The cause of this potential cataclysm? Telecommuters!

Yes, the putative culprits are telecommuters working from home either because they or their kids have the flu or because they want to otherwise isolate themselves from flu carriers in the office. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that large numbers of such telecommuters could cause confusion and network disruption, according to the article. But, not to worry because we are prepared, right? Well…

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Quiet! The secret of telework success

I am often asked why I make claims about the ability of telework to improve teleworkers’ effectiveness; whether there is some sort of magic that makes telework special. Well, telework may be special in its ability to increase effectiveness but it’s not magic. Here’s part of the secret formula.


That’s it. A substantial portion of the documented improvement in the effectiveness of teleworkers derives from the fact that they are interrupted less often than their in-office colleagues. The get more time to think about what they’re doing. Now there is an article in the October 2009 issue of IEEE Spectrum that quantifies the impacts of interruptions on effectiveness. Here’s an example from the article Infoglut by Nathan Zeldes:

Field research by Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, shows that information workers are interrupted, on average, every three minutes. Even if it only takes the brain a minute to get back in gear that’s a lot of wasted time.

“Interruptions” in this research included phone calls; incoming emails; colleagues socializing; Internet surfing; texting and similar deviations from the business at hand.

Routinely during our training sessions for teleworkers I would ask them how often they were interrupted when they were working in the office. Most answers were less than ten minute intervals. Mark’s research suggests that those interruptions were more frequent than the answers I’ve received. Next I would say, “Suppose that you have just thought of the breakthrough idea that would revolutionize your company’s business and you were interrupted; how soon could you recover that flash of inspiration after the interruption was over?” Often the answer was: “Never”.

Here’s the rest of that secret: Properly trained teleworkers experience significantly fewer interruptions than do their colleagues back in the office. Let’s do the numbers.

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