Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Work interruptions

I originally posted a much shorter version of this on LinkedIn, but I'll be darned if I could find it anymore, so I re-wrote it as a full-fledged article this time.

Most people have a work rhythm. Some folks can go for hours without a break, while others automatically pace themselves for a short pause every 20 or 40 minutes while they work. Interrupting our own work using our own natural cycles is one thing. However, imposed breaks and interruptions disrupt that rhythm and workplaces need to learn to stop doing it. First, we need to identify the various work interruptions and find ways to mitigate them.

Email. Every time an email arrives in your inbox, you're probably hearing an audible alert, seeing a pop-up of some kind, or both. You do not need to answer every email as it arrives. It's better to disable those alerts and get to your email at prescribed times in the day.

Phone calls. Who can resist a ringing phone? I know I can't. It could be important. But it probably isn't. Luckily, we all have voice mail. So if the caller really wants to talk to you, they will either leave a message, revert to email or come and visit you in person. Calls can be ignore. If you're in a work rhythm, don't succumb to the ring. If you can mute the ringer while you're in a work cycle, do it. At the next break, check for voice mail messages.

Walk-ins. Sometimes people just barge into your office with no warning. Sometimes they're just doing it to socialize. While this can be a pleasant experience, it messes up our rhythm. Sometimes the visit is due to inability to get a quick reply via email or a phone call, so the visit is somewhat justified. Sometimes the visit is the result of a conscious decision that a face to face meeting is more appropriate than an email or phone call, which is also quite justified. But it is an interruption and the effects are unavoidable. What we can do when someone walks in is immediately ask, "Is this really important, or can it wait until my next break?" Explain that you're in the middle of important work and that an interruption is going to prevent you from finishing time-sensitive work. Just make sure to go see that person and respect their rhythm if you show up at a bad time for them.

Meetings. Often you don't get to choose which meetings you're asked to attend, but if you could, you would want to skip the ones that are just passing along information that could have been promulgated by email. Meetings that require brainstorming or input from most members are the ones to attend. If you can afford to skip the meetings that are literally wasting your time, do so.

Smoke, coffee and lunch breaks. It's not just work-related interruptions that can cramp your style. Breaks of all kinds are often occurring on someone else's schedule. Do you join the crowd at break or do you keep working? That depends on your rhythm. If you're in the groove, skip the break or postpone it for 30 minutes or so. This applies to lunch as well, assuming your employer allows it.

All of this is fine, but many of us work in a corporate culture where numerous interruptions are par for the course. You can help change that, even if it's just within your own group or team. One way to give employees some of their work rhythm back is to establish an interruption-free day. It can start with a once per week event. You could call it "No-call Thursday", or something similar. The rule of the day is that there are to be no interruptions for the whole day. No meetings. No forced breaks. No phone calls. No office / cubicle visits. Ignore the inbox until day's end. Emergencies excepted.  Watch productivity skyrocket. Then, if it works, consider doing it twice per week. Soon, you'll notice deadlines getting met because people are falling into a natural work rhythm and plowing ahead.

People who are disciplined enough to work unsupervised can benefit from having an interruption-free work area all the time. They can telecommute most days, because at home, there are no meetings, barge-ins, coffee breaks, etc.

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