Interruption Management

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Updated September 6, 2022

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Managing team focus still maters at a distance. When priorities change or opportunities arise, we want our organizations to be in a position to react and take advantage of them. You may need to look at incidents with medium impact or lower urgency without raising a full-blown alarm. For these cases, individuals and teams can build similar protocols to those of incident management, but with more tolerance for time and attention.

For interruptions, you will want to consider delegating an “interrupt handler” for the team. This is someone who will be on a higher state of alert on chat, email, and other channels, paying attention to changes. The interrupt handler can escalate issues or delegate as needed; they’re like a triage nurse for your distributed team. It’s a lighter version of being on call, and may or may not be independent of usual work hours. Since the person will be interruptible, they also can take on maintenance or supporting tasks that don’t need too much focus to handle. This is a good way of getting work done that is not urgent, but is still important.

In addition to designating a point person for interruptions, you’ll need to define protocols for individuals to know when their attention is needed to support such ad-hoc priorities. Relying on instant messaging or phone calls may be challenging if you’re in different time zones, but having a predefined email subject prefix like “[action-needed]” or “[priority-shift]” will allow people to shift their attention promptly, without using channels reserved for real emergencies.

Finally, you will want to agree as a team to be mindful when others need help, so regular work can continue to happen. Jory MacKay shares some useful recommendations for individuals on the Rescuetime Blog:

  • “Schedule dedicated time for more complex questions. If a conversation is going to take time to get through, it’s a good idea to schedule dedicated time. This way that person can prepare for it and make sure it works around their schedule.

  • Not all interruptions are equal. Decide on which non-urgent form of communication you’ll use. Most people we spoke to said emails are easier to ignore than other forms. Find what channel or tool makes the most sense for your co-workers and use that when you need something. Consider providing context around urgency when you contact someone.

  • Ask if someone’s free before getting to what you need. It seems almost too easy, but simply asking if someone’s available before jumping into your ask can avoid most face-to-face interruptions.

  • Have set ‘office hours.’ If your job involves being available to others for questions, set aside dedicated time rather than being always around. This way people know when they can interrupt and you can schedule your day around those periods.”

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