4 Aug 2016

Reducing Interruptions In The Office

Software engineers should all have private offices, with doors that close, so that you can work without disturbance, when you want to.

You can leave your door open to signal to others that you don't mind being interrupted right now. And, when you're concentrating on something, close the door to signal to others to think twice before entering. It's not black and white: I'm not saying that people should never interrupt you if your door is closed. Just that they should stop and think about whether it's urgent or important. If it's neither, perhaps they can wait till a later time, or they can chat or mail you.

This is a different social norm from an open plan office, where people feel free to interrupt each other all the time. So no one is productive. When I worked in an open plan office, I rarely hesitated to interrupt others, because it's in my interest to get an answer sooner rather than later. And people will interrupt me, anyway, so why have it be one-sided? Why should I alone suffer? So I rarely hesitated before interrupting anyone. It's a tragedy of the commons.

37 signals makes an interesting point: they say it's rude to interrupt someone to ask a question because you're saying, in effect, that your work is more important than theirs.

Offices with doors set up a different social norm: think twice before going in if the door is closed. If it's urgent or important, go in anyway. Offices remind us that it's not just the question-asker's productivity that matters but also the askee's. You're taking back a little control over your environment, rather than being at the mercy of everyone else, as in an open plan office. Or cubicle for that matter. That leads to unproductively, unhappiness, irritation and stress. Control over our environment makes us happy.

Collaboration should happen once in a while, not all day. The latter means you're not getting your own work done effectively.

And if people have to consult with you all day, it can also be a sign that the company's work processes or culture don't empower people enough. When companies put in a lot of effort and pay a lot of money to hire smart, highly trained, experienced people, they should be able to work by themselves most of the time, with collaboration being an exception. If smart, competent people have to get sign-off from other people about every minute decision, that's an unproductive, bureaucratic and frustrating work environment. It manifests as the need for excessive collaboration, but the underlying problem is that individuals are inadequately empowered. Fix the root cause, rather than saying, "Offices won't work; we are collaborative." Perhaps you are too collaborative — you have a culture of interruption more than collaboration.

You should be spending most of the day working by yourself. Offices with doors optimise for that. Collaboration should be the minority of your time on any day. Open-plan offices optimise for the wrong thing.

If your office door is closed, people can still send you a message on chat, or email you. You can remain logged in to chat or email, or you can quit those apps to concentrate. That's up to you.

And chat and email should be fine most of the time, except in an emergency. After all, most things aren't urgent. Not all questions need an answer right now.

37signals has an interesting perspective on going to someone's desk and interrupting them: that's rude, because it amounts to saying, "My work is more important than yours."

The other problem with an open plan office is that if two other people are talking, it disturbs everyone else. 37signals has an interesting solution to this: library rules. Just as in a library, you don't talk loudly. If you want to talk, go into a meeting room.

People should also be entitled to work from home four out of five days in a week. Get rid of mindless HR policies saying you should work from the office, which exist in some of the best and most progressive companies. Coming in to the office once a week is good, even if for half a day, if you're in the same city. But otherwise, people should be free to work from home four and a half out of five days in a week.

Reduce interruptions in the office, so that we can all be more productive and happy, and less stressed.

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