Interruptions are a fact of life in today’s open offices. But are all interruptions necessarily bad things? We’ll take a look at how some of them are actually vital to increasing our productivity.
“Make yourself available!” … “Make yourself available!”
The words still ring in my ears. They came from my childhood football coach as he desperately tried to get a group of oblivious youngsters to watch where the ball was being played—and be ready to receive it.
I got thinking about Coach’s words while reading some interesting research about interruptions in today’s open offices. In a nutshell, scientists can’t seem to agree on whether interruptions are good for our productivity or bad. Others weigh in with a qualified “it depends,” based on the context.
Maybe it’s appropriate that scientists can’t agree, because we the dwellers of the open office are conflicted about office disruptions as well. On one hand, open offices provide easy access to coworkers, promote camaraderie and teamwork and enable us to collaborate more closely and effectively.
On the other, open offices can be noisy, distracting and packed with interruptions that take us out of concentration mode and hamper our productivity – especially if the task at hand involves quiet thinking or intense concentration.
What researchers do agree on is that interruptions occur every 10 minutes due to noise, notifications and colleagues requesting your attention. And by staying in closed offices, we eliminate the possibility of non-contextual or non-relevant interruptions as well as the contextual and relevant interruptions that make us all more productive.
Are Interruptions Necessarily a Bad Thing?
It may sound like heresy to say this, but interruptions in the open office aren’t necessarily doom and gloom. Far from it, actually. Open offices are designed to promote collaboration, which by its very nature involves a certain amount of interruption.
Think about the definition of our jobs as knowledge workers. In addition to being responsible for getting our own work done, we’re also tasked with helping others accomplish theirs. This requires collaboration, and that’s where the concept of availability comes in. True collaboration occurs when we make ourselves available to accomplish it: I’m available to help you to be more productive; you’re available to help me do likewise. Sometimes I may interrupt you; sometimes you may interrupt me. That’s the nature of work.
In addition, open offices promote what I like to call “pop-up” or “accidental” meetings. Think of them as serendipitous interactions. You bump into a coworker in the hallway and are able to provide that final bit of information she needs to complete a critical report. Or you look across the office, see the person who has the answer to an important question and rush over to get the information.
Many companies are designing their office space with these “accidental” interactions in mind. Facebook’s headquarters is completely open inside, enabling its 2,800 employees to freely share ideas and be available to assist each other. Apple’s new campus is shaped like a donut, allowing employees to easily interact with others as they walk about.
Break Down the Walls
Of course, some workers prefer to avoid the inherent conflict in the open office by walling themselves off. They put on a headset, activate their “busy” light and leave it on continuously. Or they book themselves into a quiet room for the day.
While it’s perfectly acceptable to seek privacy when taking on tasks that require intense thought or concentration, doing so full-time is not. These employees violate the spirit of open office collaboration.
To them I say, “Make yourself available.”
Both you and your coworkers will benefit when you collaborate without reservation. Plus, you’ll never know when an interruption may provide the inspiration you need to see something in a different light, solve a problem in a new way or provide a fresh insight.
Sure, maybe the context is different than Coach’s, but the advice is the same. When it comes to quality collaboration in the open office: “Make yourself available!”