Towards the end of 2015 we noticed a problem. Too often our employees would interrupt us to ask a question that they could easily find an answer to themselves. This was particularly a problem in our old office – an interruption would often interrupt everyone else because we were so tightly packed. The problem wasn’t exclusive to the office though, the same thing would happen via Skype when someone was working remotely. And to be fair, it wasn’t exclusive to our employees either – sometimes we would fall victim to leaning over and asking a question when we could answer it ourselves with a quick search of our wiki.
The more we discussed this, the more we realized it needed a solution. Each individual interruption is very costly to the person or people being interrupted, but maybe more importantly we wanted to encourage critical thinking and problem solving, and when something can’t be solved we want to make sure that the right medium is used to ask a question. For example, if something isn’t urgent, the asynchronous nature of email makes it a better choice than Skype. Moreover, because this was still happening when we weren’t in the same room, we were convinced that the larger office that we now have wouldn’t be a total solution.
It was, we decided, a cultural problem. One that we were complicit in fostering. The simple and (in my opinion) relatively elegant solution that we came up with was to create the following document (direct link to PDF version):
We had a meeting to discuss this with our team. After the meeting, we all hung the document above our monitors as a constant reminder to think before interrupting. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone bought in pretty quickly. I noticed a difference immediately. For the first few months we had to remind each other on occasion, but since then it’s become so much a part of our culture that we haven’t bothered to hang them up again in the new office.
I regularly get emails from someone sitting a few feet from me, and it’s awesome! Often times I am in the middle of doing something and don’t see the email until a little while later when I’m done with whatever I was working on, which means that an interruption was successfully averted. I think part of the reason that this stuck so well is because everyone pretty quickly learned how much they benefited from less interruptions, and therefore it was easy to understand how it would help everyone else too.
Feel free to use this within your organization, or adapt it accordingly. We’ve had a tremendous year and a half since we implemented this. I’m not sure how things would have gone had we not initiated this policy, however I’m pretty sure it would have been more stressful and potentially less productive.
As an aside, I got one really good piece of feedback about this from a CEO of a major tech company (I don’t want to disclose who because I didn’t get his permission). I saw him mention a problem similar to this, and figured I had nothing to lose by emailing him a copy of our document. To my surprise, he wrote back an hour later with:
Neat idea! Really dig that. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing! Can I share this with the rest of our company?
That sure made my day!