The Microstructure of Work: Understanding Productivity Benefits and Costs of Interruptions

40 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2016 Last revised: 6 Jan 2021

See all articles by Pradeep Pendem

Pradeep Pendem

University of Oregon

Paul Green

University of Texas at Austin - Red McCombs School of Business; Harvard Business School

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Francesca Gino

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Date Written: December 30, 2020

Abstract

Problem Definition: We examine the impact of four classes of workplace interruptions on short-term (working hours) and long-term (across-shifts) worker performance in an agribusiness setting. The interruptions are organized in a two-by-two framework where they result (or do not result) in a physical task requirement and lead to a varying degree of attention shift from the primary task.

Academic/Practical Relevance: Prior OM literature has primarily examined the long-term effects of a single class of interruption that leads to reduced performance. Our study contributes to this literature by examining multiple classes of interruptions that lead to positive and negative outcomes over the short-term in addition to the long-term. Further, our study also contributes to understanding the impact of general task transitions (interruptions) on worker performance, where the interrupting tasks include tasks that are not part of workers' primary job duties. Our study is relevant to work settings that envelop high manual labor and experience interruptions regularly. We offer strategies to improve operational performance.

Methodology: Using a granular dataset on worker productivity from 211 harvesters yielding 117,581 truckloads of fruit harvested for 9,819 worker shifts, we utilize an instrumental variable approach with two-stage residual inclusion estimation on a mix of linear and non-linear models to examine and quantify the impact of interruptions on both short-term and long-term worker productivity.

Results: We identify a new interruption class, a pause - interruptions that provide the physical respite, limit the degree of attention shift from the primary task. We find that pauses improve worker productivity in the short-term and long-term. Next, we find that scheduled breaks hurt (improve) the worker's productivity in the short-term (long-term). Lastly, we find that harvester breakdown and travel across field interruptions that drain physical resources and cause attention shift hurt worker productivity in the short-term and long-term. We quantify the impact (in our field context) of a five-minute increase in each of these work interruptions on average worker productivity.

Managerial Implications: Our study demonstrates that various work interruptions can have positive or negative effects on workers' productivity. We suggest that introducing brief pauses in a workday, in which employees are encouraged to maintain their focus on the work, can yield high-performance benefits. We also suggest strategies that limit the restart costs and increase the predictability of interruptions that hurt performance. For example, in regards to scheduled breaks, planning the break after completing a sub-task or reaching a sub-goal can limit their adverse effects. Further, regarding interruptions such as machine breakdown, alerting workers on the likelihood of their occurrence before the shift can potentially help them plan for these events and improve engagement and performance on the primary job.

Keywords: Work Interruptions, Productivity, Agribusiness, Harvesting

Suggested Citation

Pendem, Pradeep and Green, Paul and Staats, Bradley R. and Gino, Francesca, The Microstructure of Work: Understanding Productivity Benefits and Costs of Interruptions (December 30, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2888477 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2888477

Pradeep Pendem (Contact Author)

University of Oregon ( email )

1208 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-1208
United States

Paul Green

University of Texas at Austin - Red McCombs School of Business ( email )

Austin, TX 78712
United States

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School ( email )

McColl Building, CB#3490
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Francesca Gino

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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