Unexpected Interruptions, Idle Time, and Creativity: Evidence from a Natural Experiment
Abstract: Interruptions are common in organizational life and last from seconds and minutes to hours and days. We rely on a quantitative abductive strategy to find out how extended work interruptions shape employees’ creativity. We start by studying how surprising interruptions that cause idle time affect employees’ creative performance. We exploit a natural experiment – a supply chain shortage that caused unexpected stops in production plants – to show that individuals exposed to such an interruption produce 58% more ideas than uninterrupted employees in the three weeks after the interruption. We corroborate this effect in a replication and extend it to other outcomes such as submission likelihood and idea quality. Investigating the effect’s causes, we then show that we do not find the same effects for two other interruption types. For unexpected interruptions without idle time (i.e., intrusions), we find a negative effect on creative performance since employees forcefully disengage from their work and switch their attention to the interrupting task. For expected interruptions with idle time (i.e., planned breaks), we do not find a positive effect on creative performance, since employees discretionally disengage from work and focus on nonwork and leisure goals. We abduct attention residue as a plausible explanation for our findings, suggesting that interruptions cause creative performance if they allow continued activation of related goals without the need to focus on other goals during the interruption. We summarize our findings in three theoretical propositions and discuss our contributions to the literature on interruptions and creativity in organizations.