Workplace Interruptions: Why Cubicles Should Have Doorbells

I have a problem with workplace interruptions—namely that I don’t know when they’re coming. I don’t know what’s happening behind me. Not only do I experience the usual annoyance of being interrupted when concentrating on a task, but it often also makes me jump out of my seat.

My computer is located in the corner of my cubicle, so my back is to the rest of the office. I like not having to look at people while working, but the drawback is that with my headphones on, everyone seems to walk on cat feet.

A recent article in Forbes on workplace interruptions, advocating the need to set boundaries, made me think about possible solutions to my problem.

The first solution would be for me to not listen to music while I work. The problem with that is I enjoy listening to music while I work. It brings me joy many days when little else does, and it fuels my imagination, making it easier for me to come up with new ideas. I also think it helps curtail anxiety, distracting me from fixating on the small talk happening around me, or the sounds of a conversation I’m not a part of coming from a distance. I care less about what others are doing, and am able to sink into a work cocoon and get a lot done. Getting rid of the music would make me sad and less comfortable, so that’s not an option.

Another idea I had, which I’m planning to try, is to hang a mirror in front of me on the wall of my cubicle, or propped up beside my computer, that would give me advance notice of people coming up behind me.

Yet another idea is a cubicle doorbell. Unlike the doorbell to a house, it would not have to make noise everyone could hear. Instead it would connect to an app on my smartphone, which I use to listen to music, so my phone would ring or vibrate when the button is pushed, and a message would come up on my phone (if I haven’t turned around already) announcing, “You’ve got a visitor.” What do you think of that idea?

With fewer people having offices, and more people listening to music while doing work, shouldn’t there be a way of easily interrupting people, so they don’t jump out of their skin, and so the interrupter doesn’t feel uncomfortable, as he or she might, having to tap you on the shoulder or knock loudly on your desk?

What are other ways to make for easier and more productive interruptions? I prefer e-mail to the phone any day. What do you prefer? I once worked in an office in which a standard was enacted of always using e-mail, over in-person interactions, unless there was a clear benefit to the face-to-face interaction. Someone in that organization must have realized that as pleasant as it can be interacting face-to-face, and chatting, what should be a two- or three-sentence e-mail can quickly turn into 20 minutes, or more, of conversation. No more will be accomplished in that 20 minutes of conversation as would have been accomplished in the one to two minutes it would have taken to send the e-mail. If it’s a co-worker whose company you don’t enjoy, an e-mail also saves you the aggravation of experiencing that person’s “charm.”

Another way to create productive interruptions is to train employees to have a clear idea in their heads before summoning another employee to their cubicle or office, or even before picking up the phone or e-mailing. I’ve gotten too many e-mails in which the sender is tossing out an idea, or directive, with no action plan. The same rule for productive meetings applies to all work-related interactions between employees: Have a goal to the communication, including an easy-to-understand action you would like to the recipient to take. For instance, instead of just forwarding an article you saw with an “FYI,” you could say: “Bob, take a look at this article, and let me know by the end of the week if you think we should do something similar, and how we could do it so it’s useful to our customers.”

Limiting communication to as few people as possible also makes interruptions more effective. Instead of sending an e-mail to six people, think about the bare minimum of who needs the information to do what you want done. The metaphor to think of is shouting, “Help!” to a crowd of people versus pointing to, or tapping one person on the shoulder, and asking for help.

Creating a sense of control in knowing when interruptions are coming, a clear understanding of the purpose of the interruption in terms of what the interrupter needs done, and making sure the person interrupted is directed to take ownership in the completion of a task makes for a more productive workplace.

How do you manage interruptions in your workplace, so employees are able to get what they need from each other in a way that helps everyone complete their work on time?

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