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Interruptions at Work

Traffic Lights System for managing interruptions at work

Three traffic lights icon (done in 3d, isolated)

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is about their office environments, about how noisy or distracting they are. Where they can, I’m finding many people excuse themselves from their office to get serious, thought-intensive work done. In fact, some even argue that the age of the office as we know it is long past its usefulness.

You might have a very well organised personal system. You might be very clear on your goals, priorities and how you apportion your time. But it can all come to nothing on any given day if your colleagues, your team, or your boss interrupt you all the time.

The irony is that people who work in offices are knowledge workers. The knowledge worker’s key tool is not their computer but their brain. And the office environment, many times, is the most hostile environment for clear, concentrated thinking.

The knowledge worker's key tool is between their ears, not at the end of their fingers.

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Sooner or later there is a discussion to be had around office etiquette, about where and when it is reasonable to interrupt someone. How someone should signal to everyone else that they are not to be interrupted.

Someone shared with me yesterday an interesting technique: a traffic light system of red, amber, and green.

  • Green means there is no constraint on interrupting that person.
  • Amber means that this colleague is engaged in something that has time urgency, but they might be interruptible with something that is both important and urgent.
  • Red means that the person doesn’t want any interruption ... unless the building is burning down.

This sounds good.

The office environment is often the most hostile environment for clear, concentrated thinking.

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It seems to me that part of the benefit of is this idea is that the whole team becomes more aware in this discussion of different gradations of importance and urgency, as well as the improved consideration they might begin to show to each other. However, it is probably best enforced and sustained by the entire team's agreement and the teams reviews it regularly; without this, you are unlikely to serious behaviour change throughout the group.

Alexander Graham Bell

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."


A central problem in this whole issue is that an individual's focus and concentration is such a subjective and intangible matter. It is very hard to measure. Distraction will express itself indirectly through measures of productivity, but again, the realms of knowledge work, comparing like for like is always going to be a problem.

I like the traffic light system. I like it more because it encourages an overt conversation between all members of the team of this hidden thing called concentration.

Question:

Do you know of any similar group codes of conduct about permission to interrupt? Tell us below.

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