‘Have you got a minute?’- Interruptions, the Bane of Our Life

Copyright 2006 GettingAGrip.com

Do you ever feel that you either have to come in early or stay late to get the ‘real’ work done? Does it seem that every minute of the day is gobbled up by phone calls, meetings and people saying ‘Have you got a minute’?

As I talk to business people in all industries and at all levels it seems that interruptions are the single biggest issue. We’ve come out of the dark ages where managers never communicated anything to their underlings, through the development of open communication and empowerment, to the point where many people feel they have to ‘be available’ all day.

Open plan layouts compound the problem. They appear to be a good idea. It’s easy to communicate with your team, problems can be shared rapidly, expensive floor space is saved, and internal partitioning is relatively inexpensive. BUT – they create another whole raft of problems, headed by interruptions. As with any fashion, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. I believe this one has gone too far. Open and free communication is great – but not THAT great! However, there are ways, thank goodness, to minimise the down side.

How much more work would you get done if you had one uninterrupted hour a day? Does this sound good? It’s easy to achieve. Create a company culture of ‘Red Time/Green Time’. Translated, this means that everyone gets an hour a day when no one is allowed to interrupt. Colleagues take your calls, no interruptions are allowed from either internal or external sources, and you can concentrate on the ‘real’ work, or the ‘thinking’ work, which is impossible to do when fifty thousand people keep interrupting you. Basically, you’re in a meeting – with yourself.

Find a signal that everyone in the company recognises. If you’re lucky enough to have a door your signal will be the closed door, but you may at first have to enforce its meaning. Several managers in one of my client companies use a sheet of red paper hung over the venetian blinds between them and the rest of the office. It could be red paper blue-tacked on the door. In an open plan environment it might be a card of red paper in a stand of the type used on hotel tables. It could be something over the back of your chair – perhaps a red cloth. You might wear headsets, tuned in to your favourite music, when you don’t want to be distracted. Secretaries and PAs find a dictaphone headset helps. If your company has quiet rooms you may be able to book one. As more and more people in a company adopt the idea it becomes easier to implement, for others start to experience the benefits.

A basic rule for ‘Red Time/Green Time’ – you must be meticulous about quickly returning calls and attending to people’s problems when you’re done.

If you have a lot of concentration work, try two blocks – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Look for a time that impacts as little as possible on other people. For instance, an accountant identified that his clients tend to ring on their way to work, and it was far more efficient to be available at that time. If first thing in the morning is the time you get your team organised your ‘red time’ may need to be, like the accountant, later in the morning.

Another simple technique to reduce interruptions is the layout of your office. How is your desk situated? An Information Technology manager in a large retail franchise realised that his desk faced swinging doors through which, in any day, at least 100 people walked. He swung his desk around to face away from the door, positioned some bookshelves to block the view, and was delighted at the extra hours he gained and the dramatic reduction of interruptions. His work requires lots of concentration, but being the nice man he is, every time someone came through the door the temptation was to lift his head and make eye contact. Once eye contact is established you give unspoken permission to interrupt, and at very least it breaks the concentration of the worker at the desk.

Last tip for this article – if competent people keep interrupting you with questions they should be able to handle, ask them to come with two solutions every time they come with a question. Pretty soon you’ll reduce the questions. If they’ve had to work out the answers before they come, they’ll soon realise they don’t need to interrupt you for what amounts to a ‘rubber-stamp job’. If you’re too quick to supply the answer you encourage laziness and dependency. It’s human nature to take the easy road, so why not ask – saves thinking.