Handling Interruptions at Work
For most people, an important part of work life is interacting with others. Breaks and socializing with colleagues are important too. Interruptions can eat into the time you need to spend getting your work done, making you less productive and more stressed.
In a typical office, interruptions come from a variety of sources:
- managers asking for updates, making new work requests, or popping in to discuss developments informally
- colleagues who request assistance or just want to chat
- meetings, which are often overly long and sometimes unnecessary
- your telephone and cell phone, with calls from fellow employees, clients, family members, or friends
- your e-mail, with messages ranging from urgent work requests to greetings or jokes from friends, and
- noise from nearby colleagues and their telephones
Even brief interruptions can rob you of a lot of time. This is because after you've dealt with an interruption, you typically need extra time to regain your focus on what you were doing before. You can think of this as "switching" time – it usually takes some time to switch between tasks.
Some straightforward strategies can help you to minimize interruptions at work:
- You can use voice mail to prevent phone calls from disrupting your work.
- You can close your e-mail while you're completing a task.
- If you have your own office space, close your door and possibly even post a "do not disturb" sign on it until you've finished what has to be done.
Whenever necessary, you should be direct with managers or colleagues. If you don't have enough time to chat or assist with a problem, say so. Mentioning what it is you need to finish can help keep this from sounding too abrupt.
Among the most time-consuming of interruptions when you're working are phone calls. When you can't simply turn on your answering machine, you can use other strategies for reducing the time you spend handling phone calls:
- delegating – If you receive a call when you're busy, it may be appropriate to delegate the call by redirecting it to someone else.
- shortening the calls – Often, you can shorten the time a call takes by letting the caller know there's a deadline involved. Follow-up calls may not be required because setting a time limit encourages a caller to come straight to the point.
- rescheduling – If you're too busy to handle a call, it may be appropriate to reschedule it. Generally, you should offer a brief explanation of why you're not available to talk and offer times at which you will be available.
When you use one of the strategies for minimizing the time a phone call takes, it's important to avoid being rude or too abrupt. Sometimes a particular client or customer calls often and requires frequent reassurance. If you cut the calls short, you may risk offending or even losing the client. And if you continue to spend more time on the calls than you have, you're at risk of falling behind in your work.
To help prevent regular calls from a client from disrupting your work, you can
- pre-empt the calls and phone the client yourself when you have the time, and
- specify the times when you're available to accept and return calls so that the client knows what to expect – and use voice mail to do this when you're not available
Handling drop-in visitors
Drop-in visitors are people who come into your office or to see you at your desk without a prior appointment. They can include managers, coworkers, customers or vendors, and friends. Sometimes drop-in visitors want your help with problems or to discuss work-related issues. At other times, they may stop by just to chat. They can use up some of your valuable time.
Several strategies can help you reduce the time you spend dealing with drop-in visitors:
- set time limits – Sometimes a drop-in visitor may settle in to chat or take a long time getting to a point. Setting a time limit on the discussion is a good way to prevent this.
- limit times you're available – If you're a manager, it's important to make time to see staff who need your assistance. But it's also important that you have enough time to complete your own work. You could choose to make it clear that you're available only between certain times. You could also choose to limit the issues you're available to discuss.
- ask how you can help – If you ask how you can help as soon as a drop-in visitor arrives at your desk, it shows that you're expecting the visitor to address a work-related issue.
- encourage visits outside your workplace – You should also ask friends or colleagues who want to catch up socially to meet you outside the workplace. This often helps to pre-empt visits. If you're a manager, you can schedule time to make the rounds and find out if any team members need your help – rather than facing interruptions once you're focusing on your own work.
If you're too busy to deal with unexpected visitors, you should say so directly. Colleagues are likely to understand and empathize if you're trying to get your work done, and you'll be able to focus better on speaking to them once you know you've got the time. Ultimately, minimizing interruptions during the time you've scheduled to get your own work done will help your career, and leave you less stressed, with time left to assist others and to relax once your work is done.
Strategies for reducing the time you spend handling phone calls include delegating the calls to others, shortening the calls, and, when necessary, rescheduling them for once you're less busy. To reduce the time you spend with drop-in visitors, you can set time limits on discussions, limit the times for which you're known to be available, immediately ask any visitor how you can help, and encourage visits outside your workplace.