One of the most costly killers of productivity in the workplace is interruptions. There are some startling statistics about how much interruptions really cost a business. It is believed that interruptions can cost a company up to over 6 hours per day in productivity, which equates to over 30 hours in a week (almost an entire full-time employee!). It’s also estimated that social media alone costs the U.S. economy over $650 billion per year in all of the lost production. Crazy, right?
Interruptions are pretty much impossible to avoid, but there are definitely some things that both business owners and employees can do to improve the number of interruptions in their workday. I have put together some tips for how to manage and handle some of the most common interruptions in the workplace, which I’ve categorized below as follow:
- Interruptions from Clients
- Interruptions from Staff (to Boss)
- Interruptions from Coworkers
- Interruptions from Yourself
- Interruptions While Working from Home
Interruptions from Clients
Interruptions from clients seems to be one that a lot of people aren’t sure how to manage. Many come from the belief that if they don’t take their clients’ calls or answer their e-mails right away that they will upset their clients (or prospective clients) and they will leave. Managing interruptions from clients comes down to two major things.
First, is managing expectations. If you’ve created an expectation with your clients that you are and will always be accessible, then you are forever committing yourself to being at the beck and call of your clients 24/7. If that’s the business model that you want to take, then by all means, do that. However, you can unknowingly create an unrealistic expectation from your clients for you to fulfill and if you get to a time or place in your career, such as wanting to take time off, retire, or if you grow to have too many of these clients that expect you to be available at all times, then you will not only burn yourself out, but then you won’t be able to fulfill that unrealistic customer service experience. If clients (or prospects) are communicated that their phone call, e-mail and any other point of contact is important to you and that you always maintain a rule that you will respond within one business day, that is usually sufficient for most people.
The second thing is having a system for how to handle client inquiries. Just because a client calls in does not mean that you have to drop everything you are doing to take that call. However, if you have a proper system in place with an assistant screening your calls and figuring out if the client’s inquiry can be handled on a staff level or if it requires your attention, then your clients can be assisted more expeditiously. Further, if their inquiry does require your time, having your assistant book a quick phone call, where both you and the client are available at a designated time, will not only make the client happy that they will have the opportunity set up to speak with you and have their matter discussed, but you will also be better prepared with the client’s file in front of you and possibly a heads up about what it is that they need.
Same with e-mail inquiries by clients. Having an assistant screen your e-mail and immediately return a client’s e-mail to acknowledge receipt will allow for better customer service. Same as a phone call from a client, your assistant can let a client know that he or she will get a reply from you before the end of the day. Or, if necessary, decide that a phone call is needed and set that up with you and your client. A lot of attorneys get into very lengthy back and forth conversations with clients via e-mail. One “quick” question and reply turns into several more questions and so on and so forth. If one e-mailed question from a client becomes another with more questions, set up a phone call so that you can address all of their questions at once and be done.
- Having a designated person to screen your client phone calls and e-mails.
- Designated one hour on your calendar each day open to have any client calls booked for you.
Interruptions from Staff (to Boss)
One of the most common interruptions that I see that drives my attorney business owners up the wall is being interrupted all the time by staff and other associate attorneys. I hear about the long line that starts to form after the attorney is free from a client meeting or the dreaded walk to the restroom or break room, which often results in multiple stops from staff to “ask a quick question”.
These interruptions are the result of the staff member(s) not having a dedicated time to meet with the boss to get any non-important and non-urgent items addressed. If staff have a designated time on the calendar to meet with the boss each week (or day, depending on the staff member and the nature of their job role), then this kind of mass scramble for the attorney boss’ time would not be an issue.
So, the next time you get interrupted by staff, instead of getting annoyed or rolling your eyes in frustration, chat with this staff member and decide what is needed for this person to do their job. Do they need more training? Do they need a dedicated meeting time each week to be able to meet with you to review various items that come up? To eliminate a need for every single staff member needing to meet with you, do you have an assistant that can act as a liaison between you and other staff that have questions that need answering. In general, we’ve found that estate planning attorney business owners typically require weekly staff meetings with the following people: associate attorneys, office manager, marketing director, and executive assistant (usually one long meeting each week with short, quick check-ins daily).
- Determine which staff members are interrupting you and decide when a dedicated time can be scheduled daily or weekly to meet
- Establish the “Urgent AND Important” Rule, where interruptions will only be permitted when a matter they need help with is both urgent and important. (NOTE: This may require some on-going training and direction from you, particularly if everything has always been treated as both urgent and important in your firm)
- Take a look at your firm organizational chart and the various rules and job roles in your firm. Is there a clear chain of command? Does everyone have the proper training and adequate time to get the guidance they need to properly do their job?
Interruptions from Coworkers
Interruptions from staff members to other staff members is one that may be the hardest to control as an attorney business owner. Generally, we advise against micromanaging staff. If people are doing their job well and to completion, then typically most people don’t have much of an issue if employees are doing some socializing with one another. However, there are a few things that attorney business owners can do to help avoid unnecessary interruptions between staff members.
- TIP #1: Avoid shared workspace. Shared workspace is an inevitable environment for interruptions. If you can avoid a shared workspace setup for your staff, that is ideal. If you have to put two or more staff together in an area where they may be more inclined to interrupt and chat with one another, consider offering employees headphones and allowing them to stream music on their computers to help keep them concentrated and focused on their work and less likely to talk to one another.
- TIP #2: Review how office furniture setup might encourage interruptions. I used to have my desk facing my office door, so that when I was on my computer, I could simply look up and see anyone that was walking by. This almost always resulted in connecting eyes with whomever was walking by and a conversation ensuing. I put my computer on a credenza that forced me to look to the side, so when I was w0rking at my computer, I had to intentionally look to the side to see who might be walking by. Take a look at how certain work stations may be currently set up and see if there are some ways you can rearrange the setup to help avoid unnecessary interruptions.
- TIP #3: Have a designated break room and space to take lunch. By having a designated break room and space for employees to take lunch together, you are giving them a space where they can gather and socialize at a time that is appropriate. Like having designated staff meetings, having a designated lunch hour for staff to go to lunch and gather together can help avoid socializing during work hours. It can also help boost morale and help your team members bond together. (Of course, this might not be feasible or ideal during the pandemic when you may want to stagger lunch breaks to allow for appropriate distancing and compliance with safety protocols.)
- TIP #4: Encourage designated “DND” time for staff. I have had attorney clients express frustration with mistakes made by paralegals and word processors during document production. Then, come to find out, these individuals are also serving as receptionists and fielding phone calls from clients and other staff members. These constant interruptions will break anyone’s concentration! Work with your employees to give them certain hours of the day that are designated “Do Not Disturb” (“DND”) time, where someone else might take incoming calls and fellow staff members are instructed not to interrupt or bother these employees.
The last and final tip here is really for employees and staff members learn to become responsible for allowing interruptions from their coworkers. There’s a lot of interruptions that only you know you are getting. You should also do a self-evaluation about whether you are interrupting other coworkers and figure out how you can mitigate the amount of interruptions you cause for others. Internal chat clients between employees are also a source of interruptions. Those should be used for the “urgent and important” items that require someone’s immediate attention. A lot of things can simply be e-mailed and addressed by fellow coworkers when they get to it.
Interruptions from Yourself
One of the biggest interruptions from staying on task and being productive is managing your own interruptions that you allow for yourself. These are those interruptions that you allow when nobody is looking and you are supposed to be working on something important, but then find yourself open and willing to be interrupted by other people and non-important things.
Some of the most common interruptions that you allow for yourself include:
- Your cell phone (texts, incoming phone calls, social media)
- Checking and replying to e-mail
- Taking unscheduled phone calls
- Browsing the internet
- Keeping the door open (which welcomes interruptions from others in the office)
Again, only you can know when and how these things are interrupting your day. You have to be self-disciplined to recognize whether these common distractions are an issue for you and figure out what may work best to help eliminate these interruptions.
Here’s a few suggestions for you:
- Turn your cell phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode, so that you won’t get any texts, calls or notifications. If you are worried about missing an important notification (such as from a spouse regarding your kids), you can set it up so that can receive calls and texts from certain contacts.
- Close out of Outlook (or your e-mail client) while you are working and only check your e-mail during intentional times of the day.
- Keep your door closed at all times (no more “open door policy” for you!).
Interruptions While Working from Home
The past few months of 2020 has definitely come with some new territory with many people being forced to work from home. The WFH environment already comes with its own sets of challenges when it comes to productivity and managing distractions and interruptions. However, as many parents also try to balance the virtual at-home learning environment for their kids this Fall, on top of trying to work and be productive, improving productivity and managing interruptions is probably at the forefront.
Here are a few tips on managing interruptions and distractions while working from home:
- Dedicated space to work. If at all possible, try to create a dedicated space to work. Plopping down with your laptop wherever you can is not an ideal work environment. Even if you don’t have a spare room or dedicated desk and work space, clearing off a space on the dining table just for you to work is helpful for putting yourself in “work mode”.
- Share “uninterrupted” work time. If both parents are working from home and you have kids at home (whether they’re young or taking class online), try and create dedicated “DND” time for one another where one parent might be working while supervising the kids and the other is not to be disturbed. And then switch.
- Manage your own distractions. Just like at the office, you have to be able to manage your own distractions and environment. Having the television on and your cell phone within reach with texts, calls, and social media notifications on is not an ideal environment for work productivity. Another distraction at home is being within view of other things you need to do, such as in a kitchen with dirty dishes piled up or a living room with a laundry basket of clothes that need to be washed or put away. Try and keep your work space as free from these kinds of distractions as possible to maximize your own productivity.
- Schedule staff check-ins. The WFH situation can be a worrisome one for a lot of business owners without the ability to really see whether or not your employees are working. This is where having a regular check-in with staff will be helpful. Even if it’s an office manager checking in with staff (either individually or as a group) to see how everyone is doing, what challenges they may be having, and what they accomplished that day. Staying connected and keeping people accountable is the best way to help maintain productivity. And yes, ironically, I’m suggesting a staff check-in (which feels like an interruption and a waste of time), but it’s scheduled and it helps avoid non-scheduled conversations and interruptions.
In conclusion, interruptions are as big of a problem as you allow them to be. A staff person will have the hardest time avoiding being interrupted from a boss, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be a conversation about interruptions. The “U & I” Rule is still, by far, the most effective technique any business can employ to help off-set unnecessary interruptions. Hopefully, just by creating an awareness of the interruptions and how your own actions contribute to this problem is the start to fixing them.
If you would like to learn how best to structure your calendar to improve productivity, then you might be interested in Kristina Schneider’s 60-minute presentation entitled, “How to Properly Set Up Your Calendar for Success”. During this program, you will learn how to structure your calendar to maximize your productivity and help avoid unnecessary interruptions and time-wasters. LEARN MORE
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristina Schneider is the current Executive Director of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Pepperdine University in 2004 and was hired right out of college to work for the Law Firm of Kavesh, Minor & Otis, coordinating and facilitating Philip Kavesh’s “Missing Link” Boot Camps while also providing administrative support to Mr. Kavesh as his Executive Assistant for over seven years. Through her direct hands-on experience in Mr. Kavesh’s law firm, Kristina has been able to assist numerous estate planning professionals through The Ultimate Estate Planner and, equally as important, many of their staff members, in the successful implementation of Ultimate Estate Planner’s products and systems. You can reach Kristina at (424) 247-9495 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.