Uninterrupted work time is the holy grail of many professional workers. This is because interruptions are costly. It’s hard to get into a flow state and feel productive when you are constantly picking up and putting down a task. For a long time, my colleagues at Radial and I were focused on minimizing interruptions. To do this, we did things like move all meetings to Mondays, or encouraged muting Slack channels for heads-down time.

This works….until it doesn’t, and your days fall apart with help requests from new employees or one work-related fire or another. After a time, I decided trying to eliminate interruptions is futile. Just when you think you’ve squashed them for good, another one pops up. And the more successfully interruptions are eliminated, the more bothersome they are when they occur.

Interruptions are a Structural challenge

I consider interruptions to be a structural challenge: they result from a failure to make adequate space for communication. So could there be a structural solution? Rather than trying to minimize interruptions, could we instead restructure them to limit their cost to workers and the organization?

Part of the cost of interruptions lies in how they occur. Normally they are not ignorable. They are not predictable. You don’t know if the interruption is for an important purpose or something superficial. It’s hard to judge if solving the problem the interruption poses will take five minutes, or five hours.

We Changed how Interruptions Worked

When we at Radial decided to structurally change the “how” of interruptions, we did it in two ways:

  1. We created a centralized space for interruptions;
  2. We made interruptions something team members opt into.

We did this by making a Slack channel, called #help, which is specifically designed for interrupting.

The channel has two rules:

  1. All team members must subscribe to notifications
  2. If you are free and able you should help.

All team members now know to post in #help if they have a problem. They do this instead of direct messaging or going to someone’s desk to ask for help. The first team member to help with the problem adds an “eye” emoji to the post to indicate they are helping. Once the problem is resolved, the original poster tags it with a check mark.

By focusing interruptions in this channel we overcome several of their key problems. Putting an interruption in a channel means it is ignorable by those immersed in a challenging problem. And most of the time, writing down the problem makes its scale and its level of need immediately apparent.

New Approach, Fewer Problems

We have been treating interruptions this way for about 18 months, with very positive results. Employees are encouraged to post in #help whenever they need, as frequently as necessary. Those who are heads down ignore those posts, and those who are available jump in nearly immediately. It’s rare that a request for help goes more than a few minutes without some response, and even rarer that the request is not resolved by day’s end.

By starting with the actual problem of being interrupted, we have opened the door to critical communication in our organization. By being respectful about how we interrupt, we have allowed this process to be fairly low stress for most members of the team. While it may also be possible to reduce interruptions, trying to manage them down to nothing ignores the real needs behind them. Now, instead of trying to avoid interruptions at Radial, we welcome them.

Editing and writing support by Stephanie Ogburn

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