How to tastefully interrupt your colleagues

Oct 5, 2016

Some experts estimate that it can take an individual in a flow state up to 23 minutes to regain that state after being interrupted, so preventing just three unnecessary interruptions can give you back one full hour of productive flow. At TrikeApps, we try to foster awareness of how each of us is adversely affected by interruptions — whether via email, phone, instant messaging or in person. We do this by recommending books to read, empowering each of our staff to correct others’ behaviour and regularly reminding our teams of the potential cost unnecessary interruption can cause.

In his excellent book Your Brain At Work, Dr David Rock uses the analogy of a stage play to describe how the human brain handles tasks. Some mental activities take more time to complete than others. Task switching is particularly expensive. You summon the “actors” required for the new task onto your limited mental “stage”, dismiss those from your previous task that you no longer need, process the new task, and then repeat the process to resume your original task. Each one of these steps takes time.

An interruption can arrive via many channels (email, instant messaging, etc), which the sender may have chosen without any consideration of the effect on the receiver. When team members understand the consequences of poor channel selection, disruptions are kept to a minimum. As an example, Bill wanders by Peter’s desk to remind him to submit his blog post draft by the end of the week. Bill doesn’t actually require an immediate response but has chosen a communication channel (an unignoreable fly-by) that immediately disrupts Peter’s flow. A more appropriate channel for Bill to use in this case would be email, where the expectation of response time matches the urgency of the request.

In collaboration with our sister companies we put together a matrix of required response time, receiver impact and the communication channel to use. Communicating this to everyone empowers our staff to question the appropriateness of the communication channel at the time of the interruption. Sharing useful articles that explain the cost of interruptions helps individuals make better value judgements.

Required response time Receiver impact Communication channel
Immediate High (inescapable) Face to face
Within minutes Medium-high (screenable with no context) Voice call
Within an hour Medium (screenable with context) SMS
Within a day Low-medium (dependent on receiver's configuration) Instant message
Within a week None Email

We’ve found that people tend to drift back into bad habits unless given a regular reminder of these impacts. TrikeApps and its sister companies are all growing fast, so this information is now part of our staff induction and we schedule reminders in the group-wide staff newsletter every quarter.

How do you manage interruptions in your organisation? We’d love to know.

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