Let’s face it: Interruptions and distractions are definitely issues that tamper with productivity. It doesn’t matter these days if you’re in an collocated workspace environment, or remote. Teamwork and collaboration requires frequent communication. Yet we want to make sure that doesn’t derail our train of thought.
So instead of going back to private offices, closed doors (ala Microsoft and the 1980’s) maybe we can come up with other effective methods for managing interruptions and context switching. And in doing so we can get the best of all worlds – where we can maintain a state of ‘flow’ – concentrating fully – and still have a wonderfully collaborative environment.
Let’s explore some options…
Asynchronous communication first
Async communication occurs at different time-different place…information is published and then is consumed later – think: Chat, email, wiki, blogs, RFC’s…
The advantage of async communication is that it can be easily be “quarantined.” An individual who doesn’t mind being interrupted can monitor their messages and respond as they come in near real time. Someone who is busy working on some tricky problem can minimize their HipChat/Slack/Email window, turn off notifications and respond to messages at his or her leisure. (You do do that don’t you….?!)
So – the first option for dealing w interruptions: When you are in “the zone” and don’t want to be distracted, set your HipChat/Slack status to Away/DND. (HipChat will even let you set a custom away “In the zone… I’ll get back to you in 25 minutes (maybe less)” message.)
And silence all those other notifications. email alerts. Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest… I know, I know… it will be hard. You’ll face withdrawal. Try it for a single 25 minute slot. Just today. See what happens. (See Pomodoro)
And for those of us on the other side of the DND status – we have to train ourselves to look at lack of response on IM/email as not so much as “unavailable,” but rather, “just not available at this very moment…”
Ok, what about interruptions that just can’t wait?
Hold on just a minute there… are you (the potential interruptor) sure, really sure, that your interruption can’t wait? Do you really need to @here the channel, just because you want to get it off of your plate now.
Maybe you could use the task system, e.g., JIRA or GitHub and create a new issue, or add a detailed comment to an existing ticket, “assign” the card to someone… or send an email instead? Go async…
Ok, and inevitably, there are still going to be problems that need to be solved “now” and will constitute a potential stream of interruptions to a person or a team. Someone will walk up to give a tap on the shoulder or send a DM / @mention interruption.
Do you answer your phone every time it rings? Guessing not. Even with caller ID, and you know who it is, you might not pick up. (Sorry, Mom.)
In the same way we have voice mail, we might use signals that announce: “Can’t wait to talk to you, however I am busy right now.”
Headphones are a pretty universal and respected way of signaling “leave me alone, I’m thinking,” but they are not necessarily comfortable for extended use. Nor obvious to someone a few cities away…
Introducing “The Disturbed”
This solution, pioneered by the Atlassian team from down under (builders of JIRA, Confluence, HipChat, and more…), designates a single individual on each team to be “The Disturbed” – an interruption caching superhero.
Taking a time-boxed stint (today, this week, this sprint) to act as a magnet for all the questions, requests and distractions that would otherwise be distributed across the whole team, the Disturbed performs triage. Managing the incoming issues by doing (synchronously) or recording and then doing or delegating (in an asynchronous way.)
For the fully colocated squad, maybe you order a flex-figure to display on his or her monitor. That way when someone needs something, they know who to ask… (and they won’t have to interrupt several people to find how who knows about xyz…) Superhero cape and spandex tights optional.
Essential Responsibilities of “The Disturbed”
Guarding the Productivity of Others
- “Hello, how can I help you?”
- Answers adhoc queries from other teams
- Monitors the team’s HipChat/Slack channel
- Handles “walk up” customers
- Takes care of small, quick issues / queries “then and there”
- Time box “do” ~ 20 minutes or less, do it. Longer, record it.
- Takes the lead role in recording, and later doing or delegating “larger” issues
- Creates JIRA/GitHub issue(s) for queries that can not be handled within the time box
- Delegates or owns the issue (Add self as a watcher to an issue if it is handed off)
- Takes the lead in keeping “the customer” informed about the status of the issue
- Pairs up with someone from the team if needed when dealing with unfamiliar task (in a non-interrupting way, of course!)
- Coaches the “interruptor” as needed…. e.g., on where they can find the information they wanted via existing, non-interrupting methods… “Here’s how you can find the link to that…”
Cool, does this mean you won’t have to do any more synchronous communication sessions (aka meetings)
In short, no. You’ll still have meetings. Just less of ’em…
- More on meetings here…
- More on making the best of your async communications here: Slowing Down to Speed Up