Elana Feldman, PhD Candidate

Ithaca, New York

“I’m really interested in how people do their work and how they feel about it. In particular, how do people experience their workdays?”

PhD probes work distractions

If Elana hadn’t started a consulting job in New York during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she might not have found her way to the PhD program at the School of Management.

But she graduated from Brown University in 2001 and, amid a booming economy, landed a job in New York, moved from Providence to Connecticut, and commuted into the city. She worked long hours and was on a business call when she learned that an airliner had slammed into the World Trade Center. In a time when many searched for meaning and considered wholesale changes, Feldman realized that even though she enjoyed consulting for pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients, it was not going to be her long-term career.

“It was my first job at a strange time in history and I was just unhappy,” says Feldman, now 31. It bothered her that she could not leave when her work was done because of the “facetime” ethos of the profession.

“I didn’t like the idea of having to stay at work until 10 p.m. to be considered a good analyst. It wasn’t a good fit for me culturally.”

So despite having no other job lined up, she quit. “I refuse to be unhappy for very long; I get out,” she says. “But it’s not always the most financially smart move.”

To make ends meet she started working at Trader Joe’s, which had its own unintended consequence when she focused on the essence of leadership. “I went from working in a place where the executives didn’t print out their own documents to Trader Joe’s, where, when it gets busy, the manager bags groceries,” Feldman says. “That’s what made me think about organizational culture and how leaders can make a difference.”

Feldman had always been interested in issues of work-life balance, so when she left the New York area for Boston, she worked as an independent contractor for the Work-Family Research Network at Boston College. Building on her senior thesis on women who start home-based businesses, she interviewed academics and others for articles for newsletters and wrote abstracts for a database.

She also took organizational behavior classes at the Harvard Extension School and found a job at a Boston company that does leadership development and training. That, she says, cemented her interest in organizational behavior.

In 2009, she started the PhD program at SMG, and by then she was clear on her path.

“One of the things about pursuing a PhD after working for a number of years: you know where you fit and where you don’t,” Feldman says. Feldman designed her own major at Brown to look at issues like stress and disease, combining courses in anthropology, genetics, and biology. Again, she’s combining disciplines to look at the way we work, specifically how people experience interruptions and what factors make them more or less bothersome.

“I’m still really interested in how people do their work and how they feel about it,” she says. “In particular, how do people experience their workdays?”

Ultimately, her research relates to finding meaning and satisfaction in work.

With her comprehensive exams behind her, Feldman is researching the daily rhythms of employees. For her current exploratory project, she is focusing on workplace interruptions. She has asked individuals to keep logs so she can analyze how they spend time, how interruptions occur, and how people feel when they are interrupted.

The topic of interruptions is hot now because an ever-greater segment of the labor force is comprised of people doing creative or thought-intensive work that requires long periods of uninterrupted time, and newer communication technologies such as email have increased the frequency of interruptions.

She is also interested in figuring out when interruptions are “good” and when they are “bad.” “There are times when interruptions are annoying, but there are also times when you need a brain break or need to bounce ideas off of someone else,” she says. Preliminary results from her study suggest that interruptions are perceived differently depending on their timing, purpose, and who is doing the interrupting.

Feldman hopes her research can help workplaces engender interruptions that have positive rather than negative effects. In other words, she asks, “Is there a way to structure time to improve the work experience?”