Interruptions in the workspace

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Interruptions at work are inevitable and often exacerbated by the modern open plan office where sound and visibility have no barriers creating permanent distractions around us.

In South Africa, you can add a cultural angle to that, in that South Africans are not generally discreet and have no problems having a conversation across the office. This is often very disruptive and sometimes intolerable but respecting other cultures is a cornerstone of the South Africa.

There are some good articles around on the subject, in particular relating to programmers but this can be applied to the workplace in general, I particularly enjoyed ninlabs research’s and Atlassian’s take.

A question or two

Before I continue, have you ever wanted to pack up and go home to work felling you might get more done?
Have you ever done so?
Have you noticed an increase in your personal productivity?
Have you noticed it take you less time time to achieve the same amount of tasks?

This is probably because you were less disrupted, chances are you  can achieve and 8 hour office day in 5 hours at home and feel good about it, yet the same tasks will leave you exhausted at the office.

The problem

Let us define disruptions that cost us valuable productive time:

  • Walking up to someone and starting to talk.
  • Regularly walk up or call someone, that person will lose a lot (in fact up to 100%) of productive time.
  • Task switching, this can completely through people off.
  • Over-communication, whether by meetings, mail, IM or other,  if people are too busy communicating they are not busy enough being productive.
  • Office noise, this can bring a different type of interruption, the stress / concentration type. This includes, phone ringing, people talking across the room, etc.…

As a manager

there are some steps that can be taken, an office etiquette agreed to by all office employee is a good start, here are some suggestions that have worked for my environment:

  • When walking up to a person that is busy, let them acknowledge your presence and you wait until they complete their current thought.
  • Keep office noise to a minimum, in fact in creative spaces such as development team spaces ask people to step out to take calls or have isolation booth for that use.
  • Ask your employees to put their devices such as phones, tablets, laptops, etc. on silent .
  • If someone has headphones on do not disrupt them unless strictly necessary.
  • Have a 10 minutes status meeting first in the morning, often called a “stand up” from the scrum methodology.
  • Avoid meetings as much as possible, I find that about 50% of the meetings I attend are for presence only. These could easily be filled with productive time.
  • Avoid emails where possible.
  • Settle on an office wide instant messaging software and use it when required only.

As an employee

everything above still holds value but let me add the following:

  • When people abuse your time, let them understand they are doing so, most people will understand.
  • When people walk up to your desk acknowledge them or, if the task at hand is going to take a while, ask them if it is urgent or if it can wait.
  • If it is allowed in the office, get a good quality over the ear headset it will allow you to use voice over ip services like skype and isolate you from the rest of the office while listing to music.
  • If you can, keep your mail and IM applications closed, or set them to do not disturb, and look at them first thing in the morning, at 10:00, lunch time, 15:00 and before you leave.
  • Avoid meeting at your desk, rather formalise it.
  • Try to avoid meetings where you know you will not get or bring value.
  • Some times, if your employer allows it, work from home.

Though the subject of working from home and virtual offices is not part of this discussion as it open an entire other can of worms, it is worth mentioning that it is a possible solution not to be discounted.

In conclusion

These recommendations have helped me to create better more productive and happier teams without impairing communication.
It also has resolved a lot of interpersonal team member issues relating to irritations leading to a calmer environment.

Please rate this post to enable me to improve my content


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