During Corona time and short-time work, I appreciated the uninterrupted time to focus on my work at the home office. I felt productive and got things done. For the post-corona time, we can learn from this and establish practices that allow all coworkers to have longer stretches of uninterrupted time. This post is a collection of individual, organizational and cultural approaches to achieve this.
Prefer Asynchronous Written Communication
One of the most important principles for longer stretches of uninterrupted time and focus is the following:
Favor asynchronous written communication over synchronous communication.
Synchronous ways of communication, like meetings, video calls, or chats, lead to interruptions. They interrupt your flow and focus and it takes time to get back into the flow. This happens multiple times a day when there is a meeting or a notification about a new chat message. Moreover, you can’t change the timing of the interruption.
Instead, we should rely more on asynchronous written communication like emails, or comments on our ticket/task system.
- They don’t interrupt your focus and current work.
- You can respond to them at your own schedule.
- Additionally, you can’t miss the information in case of absences.
Sounds great, but we can’t transform all meetings into an email, don’t we? What can we do when our colleague expects an immediate response or just shows up at our desk? For this, we have to talk about culture and mindset. Afterward, we can consider some concrete actions.
Change in Culture and Mindset
Culture of Eventual Response
It’s important to establish a culture of eventual response, where it is accepted and encouraged to not answer immediately on requests (via email or chat). It’s about respecting other’s time, work, and focus. Most requests can wait. In order to install this culture, it’s important that the management and the organization communicate clearly that there is no real-time expectation and to encourage everyone to take time without checking emails or chat.
Joy Of Missing Out
FOMO is a well-known acronym for “Fear Of Missing Out”. Applied to a company, this fear leads to the attempt to know everything that is going on in the company. Therefore, we attend as many meetings as possible and read as much company news as possible. But that prevents us from doing on our actual work in a focussed and effective way.
In contrast, we should internalize JOMO - the “Joy Of Missing Out”. JOMO means that we should not try to know everything in the company. If it’s important, you’ll find out - promised. But most of it isn’t. The actual work is much more important than knowing things that are not relevant to you. We should use our brainpower and attention for the work at hand.
It’s work, not news.
Leave And Reject Meetings
It’s not rude to leave a meeting or reject an invitation if you are not relevant for the meeting or you can’t add anything important. Still, it’s important to be polite and to communicate openly about why you don’t want to attend a meeting or why you are going to leave a meeting. If you receive a meeting invitation ask the organizer why you are invited. Sometimes you may only be interested in the outcome of a meeting which can be shared with an email.
Communicate Culture Changes
It’s crucial that the top management communicates the culture changes and acts as a role model. For instance, they should encourage every employee to take stretches of time without checking emails or to reject a meeting invitation politely if the employee is not relevant to the meeting. The initial communication can be an email or a post in the company blog. Moreover, those cultural changes don’t happen within a day. They need practice and repetition.
Reduce Meetings and Chats
Let’s see how we can reduce meetings (in-person or video calls) and chats.
Turn Meetings into Emails or Tickets
I survived another meeting that should have been an email.
Many status update meetings and inform meetings can be turned into written updates that are shared via email. At Spreadshirt, we started to turn our regular update meeting with all IT folks into emails. So instead of interrupting the work of 100 IT folks, gather them together, and taking ~ 45 min of their time, our CTO writes an email with the latest updates. That was a great time and focus safer.
Not all meetings can be turned into an email. Sometimes face-to-face discussions are by far the most efficient way of solving issues.
Getting rid of the daily stand-up is a controversial topic. On the one hand, you can also replace it with a simple written check-out message at the end of the day in the team chat containing all the things that you have done. On the other hand, especially in remote setups, people are missing the socializing element of the daily stand-up and the option to ask questions.
Tip: Writing concise emails is a very important skill. The rules for good technical writing also apply to emails.
Turn Chat into Emails or Tickets
Using chats for updates and announcements has similar issues like meetings: interruption and missed information in case of absences. That’s why I prefer to share updates for our team also via good old emails.
Invite Only Relevant People to a Meeting
It’s crucial to distinguish between colleagues that can and should contribute to a meeting and those that only need to be informed about the outcome. Only the first group should be invited to a meeting. The last group is usually happy with a subsequent email afterward containing the outcome of the meeting.
Written Code Reviews
Tools like GitHub or GitLab support doing code reviews in a written and asynchronous way via merge requests/pull requests. Usually, we start a code review this way. If we feel that a certain item needs some face-to-face discussion, we switch to a short video call.
Besides the company-wide approaches, there are some actions that everyone can do to reduce interruptions:
- Disable all desktop notifications and the notification sound of your chat and email clients. This little setting adjustment was a game-changer for protecting my focus.
- Use the “Do not disturb” mode in your chat client.
- Take dedicated time slots for checking emails and chats - after you have finished your current unit of work.
- Only go to a meeting if you are affected or if you have something to add. Otherwise, reject politely and ask to be informed about the outcome via email.
- Configure E-Mail inbox rules/filters that automatically mark certain mails as read and move them to separate mail folders. I use this to sort out daily reports that would otherwise fill my inbox and distract me.
If you are working in software development, there are some methods that can also lead to more uninterrupted time:
- A protecting product owner. The product owner should prevent the stakeholders from showing up at the developer’s desk or call him whenever they want.
- Fewer projects at once. It also makes sense to limit the number of projects that the team is currently working at once. This way, you can reduce the costs of the context switches.
- (Remote) pair programming. If two developers are doing pair programming, they usually will not check their emails and chat during this time. Instead, they focus on the work at hand.
Establishing strict office rules to ensure uninterrupted time is hotly disputed. Many don’t want strict rules and see it as an individual responsibility. However, some companies have established those rules. Here are some examples:
- Company-wide protected hours each day. At this time, nobody is expected to answer email, chat, or to attend meetings.
- Office hours for frequently approached coworkers. Instead of approaching an expert every time you want and interrupting their focus and work, the expert defines office hours. In those hours, they are available for questions. Outside of those hours, you can’t expect an answer.
- Library rules. That’s about behaving in the office as you would in a library: Be quiet and speak quietly while you are in the office room. Go outside of the office for having a chat. Think twice before you interrupt a coworker’s focus.
- Home office on a regular base. Whether you can focus better on the work at home or in the office highly depends on the personal perception and situation. Still, many people feel that they are more productive at home. Hence, it makes sense to allow them to work from home on a regular base.
I highly recommend the book “It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. It inspired me to reflect on this topic and to write this blog post.
Do you have any additional ideas about how to ensure longer stretches of uninterrupted work? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.