solutions for interrupt driven work environment
February 1, 2016 10:06 AM   Subscribe

My company's work environment is driven by constant internal interruptions for information, help, queries and whatever is on someone's plate at the moment. What solutions are out there for moving these types of queries into a queue where we could get to them at the proper time?

My work environment is a small business environment of less than 30 people, about half of whom are working primarily via their PC's on their various work flows. We use email, Access and a file server as our primary information devices. Any process that demands a bit of information (where is this widget?, what happened to this order? how do I do this process?...) will often generate a face to face interrupt, or an email.

Context switching sucks. It pulls you right out of your rhythm and into something totally unrelated.
What services might I consider to advocate for as a way to get away from this constant interrupt-driven work flow?

The basic question might be summed up like this: any complex environment has people operating hundreds of processes all generating questions and information to resolve in real time. If I need help, information, set a task or otherwise communicate about a particular process how can I put that request in a queue they can access and respond to when it's optimal for them, without interrupting whatever they are doing at that particular moment.

Slack seems useful except that it seems to me like a flat hierarchy of subjects on which you might attach a query addressed to a particular person, kind of like multi person chat with a subject list on the left.

Any threads (like on Quora), sites or examples of companies getting this nailed down would be useful. Thanks.
posted by diode to Technology (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is literally what a help desk is for. I like the Team Work helpdesk though that your volume you may want a self-hosted solution.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:16 AM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If it really does have to be near-real-time, that is pretty much how my company uses Slack. Our "queue" is generally no more than 2-3 items deep per person, though, so it doesn't matter so much that it's basically flat - I see someone tagged me in the "help" channel, when I have a minute I stop by that channel and see 2 requests for information, I provide that information and get back to work.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:25 AM on February 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

If your company is already using Slack, then Slack can be good for this, in part because everyone's requests will be visible to all users. Getting your company to use Slack for this purpose is unlikely to work, and you'll want some sort of ticketing/helpdesk solution instead.

If your company has a CRM system (and it's well-adopted) you may already own service ticket functionality there.

I hear you, this is the bane of all IT work, and nobody has a perfect solution, and sometimes management considers it your job to constantly stop what you're doing to provide realtime support. Make sure to document that in your reviews, if you can, because it absolutely lowers performance and efficiency.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:50 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is your role in this organization? If you're the general manager, you have the authority to demand better "process" for your team, to impose structure on the chaos make sure that everyone is getting some solid uninterrupted hours of heads-down flow state .

If you are a worker bee, you can suggest up the chain of command that the current state of affairs may be slowing the team down overall. Be careful about phrasing this as something that is impacting YOU. If you do, the likely answer is "Everyone else seems to be getting along just fine, just be more like them." Try to sound out your peers so you can present a unified front.

I have been in this situation before. I had a job that required blocks of uninterrupted concentration, and it really stressed me to out get interrupted several times per day. There are some tricks you can use to get some work time. Schedule a daily recurring meeting on your calendar with just yourself, so that your afternoons do not get eaten up with other meetings. Learn to calmly and pleasantly deflect requests for interruption. "Sorry, I'm juggling eggs right now." "I'm up to my neck in this codebase trying to fix an important bug." "I'm really in the zone at the moment. Send me an email and I'll get back to you by the end of the day."

Another thing that may help is to assess whether the organization really needs you to be maximally productive at your nominal job, rather than helping the rest of the team function smoothly. If you are getting pinged for answers that a coworker could have found on Google, that's one thing , but if someone else's work is blocked waiting for your answer, maybe it's better overall to get them un-stuck, even if your productivity is lower for the day. I eventually came around to this realization, and it helped me de-stress about being interrupted a lot.
posted by rustcrumb at 11:00 AM on February 1, 2016

There's at least one book on this, Limoncelli's Time Management for System Administrators. The tools are more cron job than Slack, the principles should still be current.
posted by clew at 1:37 PM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

well...great time to reiterate that "solving *policy problems* with technology is usually ineffective, and always expensive ."

the right answer is: have management begin a no-drive-by policy. then, useful technology will emerge. it can be as simple as the culture learning to wait for an email response or a returned phone message.

the difficult policy piece is the individuals who believe their own priorities trump everyone else's. they will consistently attempt end-running whatever the system, or behaviorally break any tech you put in place.

that said, i've heard good things about Slack.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:35 PM on February 1, 2016

My company recently switched to Redbooth for this. In addition to freeing you from interruptions, it helps keep all of your communication on a given issue in one place. It has worked well for us so far (a few months). It strikes a good balance between featurefulness and ease of use.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:58 PM on February 1, 2016

Best answer: Having worked at a place like this, and now just starting to work at a place that is heavily invested in having things be ticket based/queue based... This is a cultural problem.

We tried, in vain, for ages to get a non-flat non-interrupt sort of thing going at my old job. But no one could accept that their problem was dropping into a queue and that what they needed wasn't Most Important and didn't need to be resolved right now this second or today. It turned into every area or person having their own list, rather than a nice central list. And every attempt to centralize the list resulted in rabbits trying to run the fence and jump the queue.

At New Job since everything is dropped into a queue by default... Everyone is used to the queue.

A lot of "right now" problems are not right now problems. But getting people to accept that there problem will be dealt with later after either the previous or more pressing things drop off the queue is WAY harder than just having a queue.

A great example of what i'm talking about is asking for everything to get filtered through either a manager or sent as an email, and then someone gets ahold of my direct line and people start calling me at my desk. Yea.

I'll also say that the number one thing that's hard to get right when you're trying to switch to a filtered/queued sort of flow is feedback and documentation. People need to FEEL like the gears are turning, it can't be a black box. That seems to be the number one frustration that causes people to try and end-run the system.
posted by emptythought at 5:33 PM on February 1, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, it's given me some insights into this problem. The company culture drives this problem primarily. We have an internal culture of treating people internally with the same ethic we treat our clientele, so of course you drop everything and help the person who needs it. It's so convenient to ask them, they are just right over there, or in their office trying to focus on something complicated.
Technically, adoption is a major problem so even a great solution will not happen unless it's mandated from management. That doesn't seem likely even though we suffer from terminal interrupt-itis.
I can foresee using a CMS coupled with a help-desk and priority/subject signals where you set a communication for someone on a subject with priority of x and wait for the answer to percolate down from their interaction with the same CMS, and this is designed for company internal communications. If it's really good then perhaps it could also extend outwards to your client base.
Perhaps Redbooth or Team Work is that system.
posted by diode at 6:17 PM on February 1, 2016

something that helped me greatly when i was in that situation was adopting the pomodoro technique which has a workflow element to document these sort of interruptions. pen and paper works beautifully. and having me log each interruption before addressing whatever issue was supposedly pressing helped discourage the drive by people.

it will also give you some concrete data that might be useful to management/the company.
posted by lescour at 2:21 AM on February 2, 2016

Where I work we heavily use Basecamp. The new version of it has a lot of Slack-like features, but it also features todo lists, discussion threads and calendar stuff.

We use it to prioritise and assign work. Visibility can be set per user, so you can have queues for clients or projects. There's no formal ticketing system, but once an organisations makes the switch from interruptive email-driven internal communication to an online system like Basecamp, assignments and due dates can do a lot to space out and prioritise workloads. If someone can see that a query is assigned to someone and a due date has been set for it, they are satisfied that it has not simply been dropped into a black hole.

It has some baked-in methodologies, but it's been my experience that training and pretty strict enforcement of this system as The Way We Do Things is necessary. It's hard work and it takes a long time to get embedded. My pro-tip if you end up responsible for implementing a system like this is to start by training the newest people, then gradually train more and more people. Eventually you will reach a tipping point where most of your colleagues will be used to the system or will have never used anything else. But picking a system and sticking to it is essential, otherwise people just revert to whatever they used before or whatever people will respond to, which is usually email.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:17 AM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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