22 June 2015

Who’s the Poor Sucker Sitting by the Photocopier?

I’m working with a new coaching client at the moment – let’s call him Brett.

“It’s so much better in my new office,” he said. “I’m getting so much more work done.”

“What’s changed?” I wanted to know.

“I used to be seated next to the copy machine, trying to do my work. All day long people came to use the photocopier or collect their printing.  Guess who they chatted to whilst they were waiting for their work?”

“The result was that I never got a clear run at anything. People had time to fill whilst waiting around for their print job. For them, chatting to me was light relief.

“It’s a big firm. The net result was endless frustration on my part and huge difficulty in getting my work done. Eventually I put up a sign saying ‘please don’t disturb’. The next thing, I got a visit from the HR Manager, coming to have a chat about my apparent lack of collegiality!”

If you work in a large organisation, do an Interruption Audit. Where do people sit in relation to traffic flow? Is somebody sitting close to the kitchen or the passageway to the toilets? Ask them how often they are interrupted.shutterstock_261384301

Another case study:

Some years ago I was coaching a couple of team leaders in a very large telecommunications company. They had responsibility for about 15 people and were struggling to get their work done. When I looked at where they were seated, it was very obvious why they were in difficulties. Their desks were on the perimeter of their very large pod, right next to the aisle. And only a few paces away was the locked security door between their floor and the downstairs department. Their seats were closest to the door, which was accessible only with a swipe card.

Add into the equation the fact that these two women were also ‘earth mother’ types – kind, sympathetic and motivated to be supportive to the team. They were hard-wired to help anyone who asked for assistance. The trait that made them empathetic team leaders was also their greatest weakness.

Picture the scene.

  • About every 20 minutes somebody from downstairs would come knocking on the glass door, begging the nearest person (often my two ladies) to let them through because they had forgotten their swipe card.
  • People would walk past them on their way to the kitchen for tea breaks and the toilets. The partitions were at a very convenient elbow height to lean on for a quick chat.
  • Anyone who had a problem knew that they could ask for help at any time. It had become the modus operandi of the unit.

As I pointed out the consequences of their seating arrangements the lights turned on. They looked at each other in shock. Within a couple of hours of my leaving the office they had shifted themselves as far from the aisles as they could, over near the windows. The next week they reported with delight how much more work they were achieving.

The issue of the forgotten swipe cards could have been handled from two angles. They could have refused to get up, no matter how many ‘pretty pleases’ were mouthed through the glass panel. However, most people are wired not to offend, and given their personalities, that would have been very difficult for them.  The fastest and most effective way to handle the issue would have been with an edict from the department head, that people who forgot their swipe card needed to go back downstairs and get it. Otherwise the interruption issue was just going to be transferred to whoever else was sitting in those proximate desks.

Another solution to the passing parade down the aisle could have been to install higher partitions along that side. However, companies seem remarkably resistant to this solution. It would appear that aesthetics are more important, in many cases, than productivity.

How long does it take to get refocused after an interruption?

The problem with interruptions is not just the interruption itself but also how long it takes to get back on task – if we ever do. The latest research shows that we take at least 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption to get back to what we were working on. So, a 30 second interruption could easily take 5 to 10 minutes to get back on track, and that isn’t even getting into flow. We need about 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to really get into the groove of a reasonably complex task.

Tote up your interruption time – it might be rather horrifying. How much are do interruptions cost your firm every day, week, month, year?


This article also appears in Robyn’s regular New Zealand Herald Online column


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