Are you inundated with distractions and interruptions from co-workers throughout your working day? This is a common problem in the office environment of today, with many avenues being explored in an effort to reduce the frequency of costly interruptions. Workers typically rely on a physical indicator, such as a closed door or the use of headphones, to indicate to co-workers that they are busy, and as such should not be disturbed without good reason. This is often coupled with an online indicator, such as setting their Skype status to ‘busy’ or ‘do not disturb’. However, these methods are still found to be lacking by many, which has led to the creation of a new traffic-light-based system known as FlowLight.

Img: FlowLight
Born out of a collaborative effort between the corporate research arm of industrial engineering company ABB, and a team from Switzerland’s University of Zurich led by Prof. Thomas Fritz, the FlowLight system tracks keyboard strokes, mouse clicks, and mouse movement in order to detect when a worker is “in the zone” and should not be disturbed. This is translated into a physical indicator in the form of a small traffic light, which changes from green to red when a worker’s combined activity is within the top 9% of their average activity range. Should their activity drop below this upper 9% the LED will return to green, signalling to co-workers that the individual in question has some time and may be more receptive of interruptions.

The system has already seen some success in early trials, as confirmed by the results of a recent large-scale and long-term field study which involved 449 participants from 12 countries. It was found that FlowLight reduced interruptions for participants by as much as 46%, as well as increasing their awareness of the disruption such interruptions may cause. According to the study, most participants chose to continue using the system after the trial concluded.

“Knowledge workers are frequently interrupted by their co-workers,” Thomas Fritz, assistant professor of software quality at Zurich, told Digital Trends. “These interruptions can incur a high cost if they happen at inopportune moments, requiring a long recovery time and an increase in errors in the work. In a joint project between ABB Research and the University of Zurich, we have developed the FlowLight to reduce expensive interruptions at work. The FlowLight is a combination of a traffic light-like LED and an application that runs in the background on a user’s computer. The application automatically measures a user’s availability based on keyboard and mouse interaction and adjusts the desk traffic light’s colour, as well as the Skype status of the user.

“The biggest challenge is the trade-off between the FlowLight algorithm’s accuracy and the invasiveness and privacy of the user,” Fritz continued. “While monitoring more of a user’s computer interaction or the use of biometric sensors might allow us to assess the interruptibility or availability of a user better and more accurately, the more we track of the user the more invasive it is, and the more privacy concerns they have. We have therefore opted for an algorithm that is based on keyboard and mouse interaction, takes the personal history into account, and also does some smoothing of the data to avoid too many frequent changes.”

So as to ensure that those using the system aren’t inclined to feel guilty should their light turn to green, weary as they may be of co-workers or management thinking they’re slacking, the FlowLight system incorporates additional programming which means the red light will only be displayed for up to a maximum of 13% of each day, regardless of how hard the individual is working. The system is also unable to differentiate between work and personal tasks, due to the way in which it tracks activity.


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.
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