What Disrupts Flow in Office Work? The Impact of Frequency and Relevance of IT-Mediated Interruptions

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Publication History

Received: November 13, 2020
Revised: December 20, 2021; October 20, 2022
Accepted: January 14, 2023
Published Online as Articles in Advance: November 30, 2023
Published Online in Issue: December 1, 2023


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Flow, the holistic sensation people experience when they act with total involvement, is a known driver for desired work outcomes like task performance. However, the increasing ubiquity of IT at work can disrupt employees’ flow. Thus, the impact of IT-mediated interruptions on flow warrants more attention in research and practice. We conducted a NeuroIS laboratory experiment focusing on a typical office work task—an invoice matching task (i.e., matching customer payments to invoices). We manipulated interruption frequency (low, high) and content relevance (irrelevant, relevant) to study the impact of interruptions on self-reported flow, its dimensions, and high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV; calculated from electrocardiography recordings) as a proxy for parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation. We found that content relevance moderated the relationship between interruption frequency and self-reported flow and that these results vary along flow dimensions. Content relevance also moderated the relationship between interruption frequency and PNS activation. Furthermore, self-reported flow was positively associated with both perceived and objective task performance, while PNS activation was not related to either performance measure. Lastly, we found no relationship between PNS activation (measured by HF-HRV) and self-reported flow, contributing to an important debate in the NeuroIS literature on whether physiological evidence constitutes an alternative or a complement to self-reports. Overall, our findings indicate that frequent interruptions are not harmful per se. Rather, considering content relevance is critical for a more comprehensive understanding of the effects on self-reported flow, its dimensions, and the underlying physiology.

Additional Details
Author Mario Nadj, Raphael Rissler, Marc T. P. Adam, Michael T. Knierim, Maximilian X. Li, Alexander Maedche, and René Riedl
Year 2023
Volume 47
Issue 4
Keywords IT-mediated interruptions, flow, electrocardiography (ECG), heart rate variability (HRV), laboratory experiment, NeuroIS
Page Numbers 1615-1646
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