Most of us wouldn’t disturb someone in the middle of a meeting or phone call for a non-critical issue, but we often don’t put much thought into interrupting co-workers, or how our actions might distract them, while they’re working at their desks.

Sean Clark authored an excellent post entitled “Programmer Momentum: Why a 15 minute side track actually costs an hour” detailing how even seemingly minor interruptions can have a significant negative impact on programmer productivity. Clark’s target audience is programmers, but I believe his post is a worthwhile read for anyone who depends on sustaining a state of flow for optimal performance of their work duties or manages those who do.

I’d add that it takes willpower to complete certain tasks and there’s a growing body of research that likens willpower to a muscle that fatigues with overuse. This may be partially responsible for why frequent interruptions or distractions can lead to extreme worker frustration and task abandonment. Unfortunately, it isn’t always obvious to those around us whether we’re working on something that we could do in our sleep or something that requires uninterrupted focus and concentration…

Coping Strategies for Individuals

You are ultimately responsible for meeting the performance expectations of your employer so you need to take proactive measures if you’re finding it difficult to get work done at the office. Otherwise, it may be too late to address if you wait until this is pointed out by your manager. However, it’s important to strike a balance between productivity and responsiveness to your peers and management. Here are some strategies to reduce common interruptions and distractions that you might find helpful…

Favor asynchronous and batched communication

Respectfully encourage your peers and management to favor asynchronous communication and batched requests over spontaneous phone calls and personal visits. Be sure to explain the benefits of doing so, such as having your undivided attention and allowing you to put more thought into your responses when you have sufficient time to consider their requests.

I highly recommend introducing HipChat to your company if you haven’t already standardized on a group messaging application – it’s free, searchable, and supports numerous useful 3rd-party application integrations (such as receiving build, deployment, or server load notifications). To avoid unnecessary distractions, minimize your chat client and only check it when you’re switching between tasks or taking a break from your current task.

If you have a desk phone, turn off the ringer and check your voicemail only once or twice a day – same goes for how frequently you check your email. Explain to your co-workers that chat will result in the quickest response and to approach you in person for anything that’s truly urgent and can’t wait.

Dealing with face-to-face interruptions

You’re implicitly welcoming interruptions if you drop everything every time someone stops by your desk “with a quick question” or for a routine social visit. Before you know it, 20 minutes have gone by and you’re trying to remember where you left off, and thinking about eating at your desk or working late to make up the lost time.

If the interruption will set you back, try responding with “Does this need to be addressed immediately or can I get back to you later (today)?” You’ll most likely find the majority of these visits to be non-urgent. Gently remind your visitor of the benefits of asynchronous communication and ask them to send you a meeting invite if the issue warrants further discussion (preferably, away from your desk if you work in an open floor plan environment).

If you receive frequent visits from a micro-manager, try proactively sending him/her status updates and see if the problem subsides. These updates often minimize or eliminate the interruptions (you may have to experiment with the frequency and level of detail) because they’re done when convenient for you as opposed to when your manager has a bit of free time between meetings.

I’d suggest starting with brief private chat messages in the format of “I just completed Task A and am about to start Task B” or “I’m blocked on Task X and will work on Task Y until so and so gets back to me”. If others are waiting on the completion of your task, be sure to use group chat instead – you should be using a group chat application that allows you to mention multiple users by name, so they get alerted when mentioned if they need to be notified immediately.

Dealing with noise and visual distractions

You have a few options if your employer isn’t able to provide a sufficiently noise and distraction-free work environment…

If you visit any open floor plan office, you’re bound to notice an abundance of people wearing earbuds or headphones. Headphones are more easily seen by others and present a non-verbal cue that you’re busy and attempting to tune out distractions. I prefer earbuds, for extended comfort, but have worn headphones with the volume off at times to avoid interruptions while allowing me to selectively listen to nearby conversations.

Music with lyrics can be distracting as well, and it can be difficult to concentrate if you’re cranking up the volume to drown out surrounding noise. I’ve found applications like ChatterBlocker and [email protected] to be quite helpful in masking surrounding noise – the key is to listen just loud enough to minimize the distraction since you may find it hard to concentrate if the volume’s too loud.

It’s almost impossible to avoid visual distractions if your desk is directly facing a high traffic area, and you may unwittingly invite people to interrupt you if you inadvertently make eye contact. A more socially acceptable solution than building a fort around your desk or blocking your cube entrance is to reorient your desk, chair, or monitor(s) so you’re not directly facing the source of distraction.

If the preceding strategies are insufficient, you could try a combination of the following:

  • Temporarily relocate to another section of the building if you’re not tied to your desk by a desktop computer
  • Stagger your office hours to maintain reasonable overlap with your team while minimizing overlap with your primary sources of distraction
  • Work from home when you’re up against a critical deadline, but make sure that you’re more productive at home or you may lose the privilege…

Mitigation Strategies for Managers and Employers

As employers and managers, our job is to hire the right people, set clear goals and objectives, and remove obstacles so employees can do their best work.

An Office Workplace Productivity study, sponsored by Ask.com, revealed:

  • 61% of office workers claim noisy co-workers are the biggest distraction in offices
  • 46% of those surveyed preferred email, IM, or phone over face-to-face communication with their co-workers
  • 40% named impromptu meetings from co-workers stopping by their workspace as an “office distraction”
  • 24% say they spend more time in meetings talking about work than actually doing it

As you can see, providing a distraction-free work environment can be one of the most impactful things we can do to remove obstacles for our teams! The following suggestions are all aimed at reducing workplace distractions without negatively impacting collaboration.

If you’re in a position to influence your office layout or furnishings

I believe that open floor plan offices are a corporate scheme to save on real estate and furniture costs instead of their commonly stated goal of “enhancing collaboration”. Cubes and individual offices take more space than individual desks, incur higher equipment and construction costs, and aren’t enhancing verbal collaboration if large numbers of employees wear headphones to block out distractions. As oppressive as some might find them, cubes provide more sound isolation than open floor plan offices and reduce visual distractions. I’ve also seen companies effectively arrange cubes to create open spaces for individual teams (imagine a 4-desk bullpen) while providing some isolation from the rest of the organization.

Alternatively, you could try converting surplus enclosed offices or conference rooms to shared offices if you have them available and you’re opposed to cubes. Conference rooms that haven’t been converted to shared offices should be available in varying sizes, ideally including individual phone interview/focus rooms and 2-person meeting rooms to ensure optimal utilization. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a growing company that had enough conference rooms. Consider encouraging “walking meetings” and instituting a formal conference room use policy (require scheduling, determining which rooms are prioritized for various purposes, etc.) to ensure that distracting conversations are held away from common work areas and that time isn’t wasted locating available rooms.

If you’ve chosen an open floor plan layout, strategically placed mobile reversible whiteboards can be an excellent way to eliminate visual distractions. It’s also a good idea to plan for open “collaboration areas”, since the goal is to relocate the (presumably) smaller number of people who are actively collaborating away from the larger number of people attempting to focus on their own deliverables.

I’d suggest the following measures be taken irrespective of your office layout choices:

  • Ban the use of speaker phones outside of conference rooms and private offices
  • Physically separate teams that require the use of phones to perform their duties from those who don’t
  • Only furnish desk phones to employees who rely on them to do their job – otherwise, the cost and distraction usually outweighs the benefit
  • Issue laptops to everyone so they can relocate if they can’t focus at their desks for any reason

Setting boundaries for your team

Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay, entitled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule“, which outlines the difference in schedules between those who “make” things and those who “manage” things. In summary, managers often slice their day into 30 and 60-minute blocks while makers generally prefer to partition their work in units of half-days or longer…

You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started. — Paul Graham

Between Clark’s and Graham’s essays, I’m sure you can see why makers with “helicopter managers”, meetings scattered throughout the day, or frequent interruptions, often appear to be working on tasks that are perpetually “almost finished”.

Try giving your team some “focus time” by starting out with one or two meeting-free days per week and limiting meetings to the beginning and/or end of the work day for the rest of the week. If your makers need to attend multiple meetings per week, try clustering meetings together (all in a single day or adjacent time slots) to reduce the impact on their schedules.

Keep in mind that spontaneous requests for status updates may be just as disruptive as external distractions. This can be minimized by:

  • using, and accurately maintaining, web-based project management software
  • using, and accurately maintaining, publicly visible Scrum or Kanban task boards
  • having makers send task completion and switching updates via group chat
  • having makers send you brief (bullet-point outline) weekly status reports detailing what they completed, issues they need help with, and what they’re doing next week

An added benefit of weekly status reports is that both you and your employees will have plenty of material to refer to during your employee performance appraisal process rather than having to rely on your selective or incomplete memories.

If you’re concerned that employees might get “stuck in the weeds”, and are afraid that they’ll spin their wheels for an entire non-meeting day on specific tasks, try setting expectations such as agreed upon check-in milestones or simply stating “See me if you get stuck on X for more than Y minutes…” Then follow up with the task owners via private chat, with the expectation that they respond as soon as convenient for them if you don’t receive an update within the expected time period.

It’s also important to allow your team to set their own reasonable boundaries. Make it acceptable for your employees to:

  • ask “Does this issue really require a meeting to resolve?”
  • ask “Is there a good reason for me to attend this meeting?”
  • reject meeting invites that don’t include a formal agenda
  • maintain their own flexible work schedule
  • work from home if necessary to meet a critical deadline

Closing Thoughts for Managers and Employers

  • Review the “Coping Strategies for Individuals” with your employees to make sure that you’re all on the same page with respect to what’s acceptable at your workplace
  • Manage for results instead of time spent at your employees’ assigned desks; explain that results include an employee’s positive or negative impact on the rest of their team so they don’t exceed their individual goals at the expense of the team
  • Deal with work from home and schedule abusers on a one-by-one basis – don’t make the mistake of revoking these privileges for the entire organization to avoid uncomfortable conversations with a few abusers

Most importantly, it’s not my intent that employers create oppressive or morgue-like workplaces where your employees’ productivity is their only valued contribution. My advice, selectively taken to an extreme, could create a workplace that I and others would dread. Rather, my intent is to create an environment that minimizes unwelcome distractions so employees aren’t forced to put in overtime to complete what they should be able to finish within a normal work day. I truly believe that most of us prefer the energy and vibe of our workplaces to working from home –  we just don’t want all that energy and vibe in our “personal space” when we’re up against tight deadlines.

Photo Credit: startupstockphotos.com