The conflict between being productive and being available

Posted on October 11, 2015 · Posted in Impact and Symptoms

The conflict


In my business of helping companies solve information overload,  I get to interview many managers and employees about their communication habits. This brings to light interesting observations.

I was talking to an employee in a hi-tech company and he raised a problem: he was actually quite self-aware about the importance of focusing on his work without the extreme productivity hit of interruptions, so he kept his cellphone in silent mode. Smart move!

Smart move? Not necessarily. It threw him into the heart of a conflict many knowledge workers grapple with. You see, his peers and his supervisor would complain repeatedly that he was not instantly available to them! How terrible!

What’s going on here?

This conflict is problematic because it goes beyond the affected employee alone. If it were his personal problem, he’d easily find the sweet spot of the productivity / availability continuum; the notional line with zero interruptions at one end and full availability at the other. So, he might decide the best trade-off is to check his voice mail once every hour and remain focused otherwise – or whatever timing worked best for his job function and personal work style. The problem is, the conflict is extended to include others – his supervisor in this case, or his peers, or maybe his customers.

And that is a problem, because now there is no single continuum: the others don’t care for the guy’s focusing ability, only for their own needs to communicate with him; the two ends of the line are spread out and no one owns the complete picture.

The case of the supervisor is particularly problematic: no employee will survive for long if their supervisor is unhappy, and they know it. So the supervisor in this story was forcefully pushing their subordinate to be unproductive! Of course, that is a shame, because if their subordinate is unproductive, they should definitely care; but it is a rare manager that internalizes this, that says “I’d better not interrupt Jack now – he’s busy and needs to concentrate on his task, and what I need from him can wait”.

What can you do about this?

Well, if you’re a manager, you’d better educate yourself and your group about the devastating effect of interruptions on productivity, and think before you deliver more of them.

You can also institute new norms about interrupting people in the group you manage; and you can apply some of the solutions that address interruptions – like No Interruption Zones.

And as an individual, you might consider applying some ways for people to reach you in a pinch – so they won’t be annoyed when your usual channels are closed to them. Tell them how to do so; and educate them why it matters. This is rather harder if you aren’t a manager, but it’s still doable if you’re courageous…