Between phone calls, email alerts, and random chats, interruptions pretty much define modern office life.
That’s fine if you’re bouncing ideas off people. It’s less than great if you’re trying to crank out something important. "Concentration really is a long lost art in the workplace," says Laura Stack, a productivity consultant and author of the new book Execution is the Strategy: How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time.
Management is about helping people do their best work. While you want team members to interact, sometimes leadership means helping people find ways to concentrate, too. Here are some ideas for making focus possible.
"Open offices, yes, are good for collaboration and spontaneous conversation," says Stack. "They are horrible for privacy and focus when you’re trying to think." So if you’re working in a space with limited walls, designate a few spots to create a library-like environment: an otherwise empty conference room, a recently vacated office, etc.
Particularly if your organization doesn’t embrace remote work—perhaps the best way to let people focus when they need to—then giving people options to hide for an hour is key.
Think of it as study hall for grown-ups. For some set period of time—say, 9:30-10:30 a.m. each day, or Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8-10 a.m.—everyone agrees to do quiet individual work. Collaboration can occur before and commence after.
Such "core work hours," as Stack calls them, give people permission to hunker down, knowing that they can interact freely at other times. Will it work perfectly? No. But if your team is having a hard time getting things done, it might be worth a shot.
If "core work hours" aren’t feasible in your organization, or if people need additional time, you can come up with an office-wide signal that means "I’m trying to focus and unless someone’s bleeding, I really prefer you don’t interrupt me," as Stack puts it.
She’s seen some offices use a little flag people can fly from a cubicle. Anything specific to your organizational culture (goofy hats?) will work too. The idea is to signal to potential interruptors that now is not the time to talk about last night’s game. "This person could be right in the middle of this brilliant creative thinking and boom—you just interrupted their flow," says Stack.
When Stack tries to get to the root of office concentration problems, she often hears that the culprit is—guess what?—bad management. Remember: it’s human nature to respond to a boss’s emails right away. Yet, "Clearly it’s unproductive to be sitting in your inbox," Stack says.
So, "In general, I encourage managers to batch their communication with people." Keep a running list, and then go over the list of tasks with people in one short swing by their desks, rather than in dozens of separate emails that keep pulling them away from whatever else they’re doing. "You don’t want to be the cause of someone’s decreasing productivity," Stack says, and with a tiny bit of planning, you don’t need to be.