Shuuuuttt Uppp! Why Your Company Needs 'Quiet Time'

Last Updated Jun 10, 2010 7:50 PM EDT

We've talked here about the damage caused to productivity by constant interruptions, such as reading e-mail, answering the phone and checking out a Web site (like you're doing right now).

In short, when your attention is diverted from a task, it takes time for you to get your mind back in the flow of what you were doing. Add up all the interruptions you get during a day and you can see the hit to productivity.

Which is why many companies are now going back to the days of pre-school and installing "quiet time," periods when workers are sequestered from interruptions to focus on the work at hand. According to the entrepreneur.com article E-mail is Making You Stupid, companies including in IBM, Intel, U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche regulate the time of some staffers by:

  • Putting time limits on e-mail use, and even banning e-mail on certain days.
  • Adopting no-technology days, where employees clean their work space and tidy up the paperwork.
  • Establish programs and processes that encourage face-to-face contact.
Usually technology quarantines are not enforced company wide, but rather at the department or project level.

The idea of quiet time emerged from research at Harvard Business School, according to the magazine.

"Ten years ago, Harvard Business School's Leslie Perlow famously chronicled the interruption of a high-tech software company. Its engineers were interrupted so often they had to work nights and weekends. After studying the workplace for nine months, the source of the dysfunction became clear: No one could get anything done because of the bombardment of messages. Perlow came up with an intervention: Quiet Time. For four hours in the morning, the 17 engineers worked alone. All messaging and phone contact was banned. In the afternoon, communication could resume. Given time to concentrate, the engineers got a project for a color printer completed without the graveyard shift."
A year ago my employer shut down computer access for a day in order to install a new IT power supply. It was a revelation. We talked with each other. We talked with customers. We found paper documents we hadn't seen in years, and threw away docs we didn't want to see ever again. Having time divorced from our computers was almost like a vacation day.

Does your employer enforce some form of quiet time? Do you wish it did?

('Hush Boy' image by Cleo Chabrou, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.