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How to manage interruptions in an open plan office

Deirdre Wilson – Tuesday, March 01, 2016   


I jumped out of my seat to go and ask a colleague for help but stopped as soon as I stood up to check the time. Five before the hour - not an appropriate time for an interruption. So I made a note for myself, did something else for a few minutes then sorted out my problem with my colleague - on the hour.

Why couldn't I interrupt at five before the hour? Because we have a rule about interruption - there are to be none. Instead, on the hour, every hour, is when any queries are dealt with. That's when we ask question, offer help, answer questions, huddle, make tea, etc. The rest of the time is for quiet working. No exceptions. That's the rule.

Does it help? Oh boy, does it help!! In more ways than just allowing for uninterrupted time, it also allows us to rediscover those concentration skills that erode with interruptions. There is plenty of evidence that open plan offices are awful and that interruptions are the main cause of productivity loss. Any reduction in interruptions will bring about an increase in productivity.

Most people now struggle with being able to concentrate. Even if you give people uninterrupted time, they will struggle with how to make it work for them. By chopping the day up into one hour blocks it becomes easier to rediscover the skill of staying focussed. An hour can easily be broken up into useful chunks that can get longer as concentration grows.

The other benefit is one of team work and respect. Each hour we check in with each other and see if anyone needs help, can help or needs a break. Small gestures of checking in with each other are part of treating each other with respect.

Left alone, creative people are extremely capable of wandering off down creative dark alleys, chasing an idea or get stuck into solving a problem - but not necessarily the right problem. At the end of the day we all want to feel like we have been productive, made progress, helped someone else - each of us has different happy triggers but doing unnecessary work in a distracted state is not one of them!


Further Reading

More on better use of your office time...
- About getting organised with habits and processes

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design – Australia's most sensible information design company.
Deirdre applies her background in industrial design and design management to the complex and wondrous projects undertaken by Hothouse Design.

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