How To Stop Interruptions In The Office

There’s nothing worse than getting interrupted when you are working
There’s nothing worse than getting interrupted when you are working
Image Credit: Oreste Messina

So has your office gone to one of those “open office” floor plans? According to the really smart people, there are a lot of advantages of this kind of open office design. However, one of the downsides to it is that it can be all too easy for someone to show up unannounced at your desk and interrupt the work that you are doing no matter how good your manager skills are. We want them to go away and just leave us alone to do our work. In this kind of open office, what can a manager to in order to tell the world that we just want to be left alone?

Getting The Message Out

Let’s face it, we don’t want to be interrupted at the office when we are busy working. In order to prevent this from happening, we don’t have a lot of manager training and so managers resort to a number of different tactics. They put on headphones, they light busy lights, etc. to let others know that they are busy. However, managers realize that just by letting the world know that they are busy and don’t want to talk with anyone, they are causing an interruption to themselves. Additionally, putting up such visual indicators can make them appear to be unhelpful or unfriendly.

At one firm, they believe that they may have come up with an engineering solution to this problem. They created an automated solution that consisted of a light for each manager that would turn either green, yellow, or red in order to let others know if interruptions are or are not currently permitted. For the users who tested the new system, they reported that unwanted interruptions decreased by 46%. One of the side benefits of using the system is that people become more aware of how disruptive interruptions can be. This made them more motivated to focus on their work.

Many users already use the Skype tool’s user status indicator to let others know what their current status is. The new tool that this firm developed emulated a lot of what the Skype tool did and consisted of a physical light that was mounted on either a cubical wall in an open office environment or outside of an office. The rules were that if the light was green, then the worker was available. A red light meant that they were busy. This meant that anyone who was planning on interrupting them should stay away. The system also supported a red pulsing light that indicated that people should stay away and not disturb the person unless the issue was critical. The yellow light meant that the person was away from their desk.

Leave Me Alone!

The company that implemented the status indicating system used lights that were approximately the size of a quarter and the light unit was shaped into the shape of a rectangle. The lights are automatically triggered by a manager’s sustained computer activity. The company loaded software that would track typing and mouse movements onto each laptop. The software had logic that would detect occasional periods of intense typing and would not turn on the red light for those periods. The system also had the ability to track events that had been loaded on to a person’s calendar.

The company realized that computer software was not always going to be the best indicator of a manager’s current productivity. The system also included physical switches that allowed each of the lights to be turned on manually. In the beginning, in order to avoid having users use the red lights as a status symbol, the red lights were initially limited to only being on for 18% of a day. In the end, this was considered to be excessive and so it was reduced to 9%. Researchers realize that all managers are only really productive for a small portion of each day and so they wanted to prevent them from turning their red lights on in a competitive fashion.

Managers need to realize that not all interruptions at work are necessarily bad. The interruptions that are either not needed or are poorly timed can be bad – they are going to reduce your productivity. However, other types of interruptions can be valuable. They can lead to discussions that can end up solving problems and helping a company out. Our goal as managers needs to be not to do away with all of the office-based interruptions, but rather to try to channel them to time periods in which you are not deep in concentration.

What All Of This Means For You

A popular way of organizing the modern office, the open office design, can make it very easy for other people to interrupt managers when they are in the middle of doing work. Managers have been trying a number of different approaches to communicate to people when they don’t want to be interrupted with varying degrees of success. What is needed is a better way of getting this information across.

The problem that managers are running into is that setting up a system to let others know that they are busy is an interruption in of itself. Additionally, they are concerned that putting up such systems may make them appear to be unfriendly. A company thinks that it has created a solution to this problem. They created an automated solution that consisted of a light for each manager that would turn either green, yellow, or red in order to let others know if interruptions are or are not currently permitted. The system supports a green, yellow, red, and flashing red light to communicate current status. The company connected a manager’s light to their computer and it would automatically change its state based on the user’s level of activity. Managers still had the ability to control the lights with physical switches. Managers need to realize that not all interruptions are bad.

Managers have a lot of work that they need to get done. We spend our time at work trying to make progress on what we need to do. One of our banes is that it can be all too easy for our coworkers to show up and interrupt us when we are in the middle of something else. A firm has created a system of lights that can show the current status of a manager and cause people to not interrupt them. This system shows some promise and may allow managers to avoid some unnecessary interruptions. We’ll have to keep our eyes open and see if the interruption lights become available in our workplace!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: How much time do you think that a manager could keep their red light on?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Just in case you had not noticed it, the world has changed. Sexual harassment has been going on in the workplace for a long time and thanks to the #MeToo movement it’s been brought out into the light. There is currently a big uproar going on with new allegations of improper workplace behavior being announced almost every day. As a manager who is both responsible for using your manager skills to manage a team of both boys and girls as well as working with boys and girls in other departments, the new rules for working in the modern workplace can appear to be quite confusing.