Handling interruptions

Busy owners of small businesses can be beset by constant interruptions: colleagues asking questions or presenting emergencies; pestering from overzealous salesmen; calls from customers and suppliers, and many more. Here are some tips and hints on dealing with interruptions.

Busy owners of small businesses can be beset by constant interruptions: colleagues asking questions or presenting emergencies; pestering from overzealous salesmen; calls from customers and suppliers, and many more. With such a barrage of people demanding attention and only so many hours in the day, even the smallest interruptions can rob you of the time you need to achieve your goals and run a successful company. So, it’s vital to develop a knack for dealing with this, though striking a balance between being approachable and maintaining productivity is tricky.

An open attitude

‘Interruptions [from staff] can be a good thing,’ says Sarah McVittie, CEO of mobile messaging information firm RE5ULT, which also runs 82ask.com. ‘It means you are approachable and not detached from the rest of the company. I like to have a very open office.’

So does Arman Khan, co-founder of infrastructure management services provider 3net. He sits alongside the rest of his company, divided only by glass partitions, and believes, ‘It’s critical I achieve an open-plan policy.

‘I used to work for bosses who always frowned and had a “what is it now?” expression on their faces whenever anyone went to speak to them,’ Khan recalls. ‘I’m trying hard not to have that attitude.’

Just say no… politely

While being approachable is important, regular non-urgent interruptions can break your focus and you may end up wasting time trying to re-engage with your thought process, or lose the thread altogether. So, when they do happen, the challenge is to take a moment to appreciate the importance of the person’s enquiry while keeping your train of thought on track. You may have to learn to say no to some requests, while others you defer to a more convenient time.

‘Balancing productivity and approachability is difficult, but if you say, “I’m in the middle of something right now but I’ll come and see you in an hour and then we can talk,” you are not discouraging people coming to you with ideas but you can continue to work effectively,’ explains Khan.

When it comes to phone interruptions, one solution is to identify regular times when your phone is diverted to voicemail or someone else handles your calls. This gives you the opportunity to deal with the enquiries in order of priority at a later date.

Surgery hours

One simple but effective method of avoiding untimely interruptions is to have specific times when you are available and others when you are off-limits, except for real emergencies.

‘If someone has something they need to talk to me about, I encourage them to mention it first thing in the morning,’ says McVittie. ‘That way I can schedule them into my day from the start.’

Another option is to pre-empt interruptions by holding routine meetings with people. 3net has adopted this policy and implemented an informal forum when employees know they can ask questions, offer suggestions and make comments in a relaxed atmosphere every Friday afternoon.

‘If people know they can have access to you on a regular basis once a week
or once a month, they are much less likely to disturb you during the week with something that can wait,’ explains Khan.

Even with more organised and scheduled interruptions it’s important not to let them overrun. Meeting with colleagues in their offices or in a meeting room gives you more control, as it is far easier to excuse yourself and leave than to kick people out of your own office.

Signs of availability

A good practice is to agree a company-wide policy on what signals you’ll use to indicate you’re unavailable. This can include putting a sign on your desk or simply closing your office door. While McVittie and Khan both sit among their employees in an open plan office, CEO of outsourcing provider Pasporte Gary Woodward has a separate office but adopts an ‘open-door policy’ and staff know that on the rare occasions when the door is shut he is not to be disturbed.

If he does have work that requires his undivided attention, Woodward will use time at the beginning or end of the day to do it at home, free from the distractions of a busy office, so he can be more available when in the office.

‘I prefer to be viewed as open and approachable,’ he explains. ‘People can come to me and I often wander around the office to talk to them. It’s a question of being far enough distanced to work productively, but near enough to remain hands-on.’

But can this delicate balance be maintained in the long-term? Woodward hints at the possibility of more separation in the future. ‘We are currently all crammed together on one floor, but the time will come soon when we are a size that demands we expand elsewhere. With some people in different locations, a different culture may have to emerge.’

3net’s Khan is hesitant about such change and adds, ‘I may be being naïve but I will always resist the temptation to lock myself in my own office away from staff, even as the business grows.’

Adam Wayland

Adam Wayland

Adam was Editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2006 to 2008 and prior to that was staff writer on sister publication BusinessXL Magazine.

Related Topics

Managing Staff

Leave a comment