managing interruptions

Managing Interruptions And Boosting Work Performance During Crisis

Digital businesses were forced to move fully remotely during the social isolation of COVID-19.

But this is one of the worst experiments of “testing out remote working”. Employees experience different dynamics at home. Kids are home-schooled (or babysitters are no longer available). Social contacts are non-existent. The biological weapon creeping out there keeps everyone alert.

So do you still think that coronavirus is the best social experiment for assessing a distributed company?

Remote Work In COVID-19 Times

Enter the world of interruption science. Different studies under interruption science report that interruption during productive hours may take 15 to 45 minutes for the employee to get back on track, fully focused on their assignment. Lifehacker bets on 23 minutes and 15 seconds.

Here are quotes from some of the surveys on that topic:

Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, conducted a study on office workers, which revealed that “each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted”.

A study quoted by Priceonomics (origins found at Kelemen) showed that a team of programmers is interrupted through a technical Skype support chat up to 150 times a day.

Interruptions at work can be truly dreadful, and managing performance without spending hours on the wrong assignment is not an easy feat.

What Is Interruption Science?

What is Interruption Science?

Here’s a definition from WhatIs.com:

“Interruption science is the study of how disruptions from current tasks affect employees on the job. Disruptions include both self-directed interruptions, such as checking Facebook or Twitter, and external interruptions, such as email notifications, phone calls, texts, instant messages and in-person visits. As part of the larger field of workplace psychology, interruption science explores the impact of these events on employee stress, job satisfaction and productivity.”

Most jobs, particularly creative ones, depend on processing large volumes of data and building solutions before creating a fix or a new feature.

Composing the right structure in your head takes time and hundreds of considerations (preventing regressions, performance bottlenecks, security issues). An interruption may affect that cycle and get you back to square one.

Causes of Workplace Interruptions

Workplace Interruptions

There are different causes behind workplace interruptions.

Office interruptions may be voluntary or involuntary. Printer sounds or casual chit-chat around the water cooler can contribute to distractions, along with calls and other nearby activities. Even a quick question from a fellow colleague can be a huge interruption (but may be avoided as it may be a low priority reoccurring dozens of times a day).

That’s why headphones are crucial for most employees in most office environments. Headphones are a good indicator of unavailability. Some office workers may use that simply as an isolation signal. Or, they can pick a playlist that boosts their productivity at that point in time – often something rhythmic that’s familiar or lacks distracting lyrics.

However, the use of headphones is not a long term solution to work problems brought about by interruptions and other productivity issues. The same thing goes with other hacks that only try to take a shortcut.

An employee may still get the occasional interruption from a fellow colleague. Reasonable co-workers would only bother others if it’s an important question that requires their attention.

Remote Work Interruptions

Even those who work remotely for a while now (prior to the coronavirus chaos) also suffer from interruptions that affect their productivity. 

Reportedly, remote employees who encounter interruptions while working at home primarily deal with different sorts of interruptions from family members, pets, deliveries, and neighbors. Some interruptions can wait, while others need immediate attention. What makes it more challenging for the company is that it’s difficult to keep track of the remote employees’ actual productivity.

As a distributed agency, we use Slack and Asana at work and have used other messengers and project management systems for different needs for both of our onsite and remote employees.

Some of our members run time trackers like TimeDoctor or RescueTime for a general breakdown of their working hours. We need to fill out spreadsheets for client work in order to be accountable, keep scaling, and track inefficiencies.

Considerations in Managing Interruptions

Reasons why employees are unproductive

You have to recognize the reason employees are not able to focus and become unproductive causing more inefficiencies.

This could be due to:

  • An inefficient business process
  • Lack of ownership (relying and depending on multiple people)
  • Lack of experience/skills
  • Poor hires
  • Lack of a personal time management process
  • Lack of motivation
  • A wrongful fit for the team
  • Poor onboarding

However, here’s a harsh truth: You can’t really *help* an employee become more productive. You can motivate them and reduce obstacles, i.e. pending on approval from management or lack of access to certain platforms.

Everything else is 100% work culture. Your staff either doesn’t care or they do. Those who do would do anything in their power to contribute to the bottom line. As for everyone else, you can reason with them, share feedback on an ongoing basis, put them on performance improvement plans. But you don’t want to be a shepherd together. Business strategy and growth will affect everyone on the team if your valuable time is spent on an employee who doesn’t care about the job.

Oftentimes, it’s plainly the employees’ inability to navigate through and manage interruptions.

In a survey by RescueTime on RescueTime users about their worst distractions, the results show that “interruptions were a constant threat to their focus”.

Level of Interruptions

Let me share with you 6 tips that will help you and your team gain more focus amidst several interruptions while working.

1. Planning Is Key

Without the right plan in place, you’re working in a chaotic environment.

The basal ganglia in your brain is in charge of relieving your brainpower by handling well-known activities (habits) that you’ve put in place. Organizing your workflow and your project schedule will let you focus on actual problems instead of running in circles. But how do you plan for the right workflow?

A creative workflow for Filestage looks like this:

Creative Workflow Idea from Filestage

While a content workflow for SingleGrain looks like this:

Content Workflow Idea from SingleGrain

The most ideal workflows often form out of constant process documentations and optimizations. Make sure you keep watch of the best practices in your work processes, and the common roadblocks so you can refine your workflow further.

Designing an effective workflow will probably pass several iterations until you polish it. Even then, it’s a recurring exercise that goes through minor changes every now and then. Keep into account delays caused by family members interfering or your colleagues or staff dealing with other family matters they wouldn’t need to otherwise.

But once you stick to a workflow, your onboarding time can be dedicated on an established process with clear expectations at the end. Your workflow can be documented. You can include screenshots, videos, samples from the projects you work on or products developed in the organization.

This is the main reason processes exist: the ability to onboard new people and follow proven practices for success.

2. Time Management Strategies 

Most employees may benefit from Pomodoro as it’s extremely effective if you don’t deal with tons of interruptions. Either way, managing interruptions is extremely important as your focus time may vary from 15 to 45 minutes per interruption.

There are tons of other time management techniques such as Getting Things Done, 1–3–5 List, Zeinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” and the like. Look them up and find something that works for you – and make sure you follow it rigorously.

It’s also a  matter of prioritization that could be communicated within the environment (the office room or so).

On a scale from 1 to 10, an engineer may “indicate” how important his work is and what is perceived as a critical/urgent matter. After all, actual emergencies are a thing.

Emergencies do happen, that’s a given. I just don’t plan 10 hours of work in a day, that’s pretty much it. 15h/day can easily pile up even if I plan for 6h with the 1-3-5 list and work for 10-11 hours throughout the day. 

Here’s where prioritization kicks in. The backlog is endless, iterating daily is what makes the difference.

3. Break Complex Problems Down

Most people struggle with their day-to-day due to ambiguity and tons of general questions and blockers. Spend some time and decompose a complex assignment into components, modules, layers. Write down the actionable plan for each of them in simple, coherent tasks.

This will let you perform at your best even when you’re tired or slightly distracted.

Problem complexity can hide in different aspects of managing a task, process, or project. The key goal is discovering the main blocker that prevents you from moving forward.

Some popular examples that overwhelm employees (or even managers) and can be mitigated:

  • Time management
  • Prioritization
  • Missing dependencies
  • Unclear communication (or descriptions)
  • Large tasks that can be broken down into tiny, independent pieces
  • A soft skill that requires additional development (improvement)

Investigate the challenges that eat up most of your time and energy. Find out what differentiates an easy assignment from a complex one. What takes most of your mental energy in the process.

Once you figure it out, design a process that decomposes a complex problem into one that’s easy to follow.

Even while juggling with a toddler at home, having well-defined tasks would make it possible to push through your backlog effectively.

4. Make Sure You Handle Dependencies First

Server or repository access, assets required for your work, capabilities to load a Dropbox folder or all Google Docs documents – you name it. It’s unfortunate when you’re in the zone and have to stop because your ssh credentials aren’t working or you haven’t been granted access to a crucial project folder. 

ProjectManager.com wrote about four types of dependencies that are normally involved in managing projects.

Four Types of Task Dependency

Getting the dependency wrong can ruin the entire project and be disruptive to the processes already set. A task that is due to complete must be set up in a way that allows for the next task resources to follow through. Otherwise, it will be difficult to manage your resources amidst several interruptions in your workflow.

5. Figure out What Boosts Your Creative Juices

If you can work remotely and that helps, make it happen. Headphones? Check. Play some background tunes – a house/trance set or anything else that helps you concentrate (lyrics are often distracting). You can resemble a coffice environment with Coffitivity at the office.

Stimulating creativity, however, is highly an individual task. Here’s an infographic from Shout that you can share with your team so they can be reminded each working day every time they run out of creative ideas.

Simple Ideas to Stimulate Creativity

6. Find the Right Challenge

Lack of focus is usually equal to lack of motivation. Train your brain to find a challenge in any activity – a problem you haven’t solved yet, a way to extract a complex algorithm and blog about it, an idea for a meetup topic you can present to your team.

Challenging one another on a higher-level task can be beneficial for both the team and the company. It boosts productivity and positive results for the company, and in return, the employees get rewarded. Not only that, but you will also open up your team to “healthy interruptions”.

Not all interruptions are bad. Managers can also adopt the “healthy” interruption behavior within their teams by reserving interruptions for tasks that encourage collaboration and effective communication. Often, the perception employees have towards an interruption is what is causing them stress and not the interruption per see.

With this shift in perspective and behavior, there will be a shift in productivity rate.

Managing Interruptions Without Compromising Work Relationships

managing interruptions

The final point you have to consider is your social circle at work.

Most work distractions are related to interactions with your colleagues:

  • Slack pings for status updates
  • A junior asking you for help
  • Water cooler chats when you fix your morning coffee
  • Meetings
  • Peer discussions for a project
  • Requests to work on a low-priority task first while tackling an important emergency
  • Other offtopic interruptions

But mitigating all of these without coming off as an asshole is not a trivial exercise. There’s a fine balance between being an A-player and being a great team player. Drawing the line closer to either spectrum can harm your performance review or the ability to adapt to the organization.

Tips on Managing Interruptions

Some tips to consider when you worry about your performance at work:

  • Keep a close eye on your priorities. Distractions are far too common. Make sure you wrap up your work for the day instead of pushing it back every night.
  • Engage in a short chit-chat but don’t overextend it. Learn how to keep a conversation going without diving too deep into it every single time. Learning the art of small talk can be a strong trait to balance both acts.
  • Add your planned “distractions” such as meetings to your agenda. First, you won’t overwhelm yourself with extra work if time isn’t enough. Second, your peers (or seniors) can see that, and decide what matters most.
  • Use headphones at work if/when possible. Switching to “Focus mode” can help you deliver a complex task in an hour without distractions.
  • Turn off your phone and instant messengers. Not all distractions are work-related. At least you have the ability to disable external factors and boost your productivity as a result.
  • Research if any distraction-free options are available at work. If you use Slack, see if you can switch to “Do not disturb” every now and then, reducing the IM noise. If there’s a free conference room and you need to focus, ask if you can use it.

Managing interruptions is an ongoing exercise but worth reviewing on a regular basis. Through self-control, communication, and automation, you can boost your productivity and deliver more in less time.

Your thoughts?