Communication Without Disruption: A Manager’s Quandary

In the early days of being a Development Manager, I used to make the rounds four to five times a day asking each member of each team: “How are things going? What can I do to help?”.  Sometimes I would get the opportunity to assist, but most of the time the response was something along the lines of “Everything is going well, no help needed”.

My intentions were good and were totally in line with my responsibilities. However, I think it was around the first time that I heard Scott Hanselman’s talk on productivity (see his blog post on the topic) that I really started to realize the cost of these interruptions. Even something as simple as a yes/no question (“Need help?”) can break somebody out of “The Zone”.

It is important that team members get uninterrupted time every day. Part of not interrupting someone is being able to tell when they actually are in The Zone. This isn’t usually rocket science; if you see that someone is really intensely focused, then don’t bug them. If you have trouble telling when someone is in The Zone then work out a signal like wearing headphones, setting something out on their desk, etc. as a visual cue.

Another disruptive but convenient communication technique — and one that I am guilty of overusing myself — is instant messaging. Although we may not realize it, sending someone a message can be almost as disruptive as walking up to them and asking a question. A little blinky window at the bottom of the screen can be enough to break someone’s concentration. A phone call is even worse.

Ok, so how can we communicate with team members without disrupting? That is, how can we communicate without having to worry about breaking people out of The Zone? The most obvious way is to approach someone when they are clearly not in The Zone. What if you don’t have the luxury of sitting right next to the team member? Try email.

Yep. Good old fashioned email. Email is a great way of issuing an asynchronous request that says “hey, when you get a minute I need to talk to you about XYZ”. There are three benefits to this approach. 1) Your team member will likely only be checking their email when they are at a good stopping point. 2) Giving some sort of context as to the topic can allow them to mentally prepare. 3) They can choose to reach out to you when convenient for them.  As Paul Graham’s blog post suggests, a manager’s schedule is more conducive to interruption, so this approach won’t cost you as much time overall.

It takes discipline and patience to avoid disrupting your team(s). I often times struggle with adhering to these ideas myself, but it’s a work in progress.


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