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?’
In the 25 years since I began specialising in the field of productivity and time management, in all industries and at all levels, interruptions have risen to the top of most people’s time challenges.
Over the last 40 or 50 years well-run businesses have made big strides in communication and empowerment. There is a common expectation now that we have to be available constantly and swiftly. However, non-stop availability is a recipe for stress and decreased productivity for everyone, including the interrupter.
So how can we reduce it, especially in open plan offices? By setting up a different rhythm of work, and educating those around you how to treat you.
Although a totally open plan layout appears to be a good idea, it compounds the interruption issue. The positives are that 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 – it creates another whole raft of problems. 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! Research shows us that an average knowledge worker loses around 28% of their working day due to interruptions of all kinds, including self-generated ones. Typically, it takes 10-20 times the length of the interruption to get refocused. A 30 second interruption can take 5 – 10 minutes to recover from. However, the story is actually worse than that. If you’re doing something complex or comprehensive, it generally takes about 15-20 minutes to get back into ‘zone’. Consequently, many workers struggle to reach full concentration. Instead, they work in a constant state of interruption and distraction.
Let’s look at ways to minimise the down side, increase productivity, and get home at a decent hour.
Develop the Art of Concentration
How much more work would you get done if you had at least one uninterrupted hour a day? It’s surprisingly easy to achieve. Create a company culture of Red Time, sometimes known as a Power Hour or a Time Lock. Translated, this means that everyone gets regular daily blocks of time, typically an hour at a time, when you can work interruption-free.
During this period you concentrate on the ‘real’ work, or the ‘thinking’ work, which is impossible to do when people, phone calls and emails keep interrupting. Basically, you’re in a meeting – with yourself.
Signal your intentions
- Turn off your phones.
- Find a physical signal that your colleagues will recognise as ‘I’m busy right now. Please come back later’. It might be a red paper flag blu-tacked to your computer.
- 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.
- Try headsets. Even if there is no music coming through, the noise-cancelling ones help reduce the top layer of sound.
- If your company has quiet rooms, book one for your focus work.
- 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.
As more and more people in an organisation adopt the idea it becomes easier to implement, for others start to experience the benefits and therefore are more respectful of their colleagues’ need for the same opportunity.
A basic rule for Red Time – you must be meticulous about quickly returning calls and attending to people’s problems when you’re done. Otherwise people get impatient and will go back to interrupting you.
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.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column