I’ve spent most of my career working in newsrooms, big, open rooms with lots of noise: reporters conducting phone interviews, editors talking to reporters, usually while trying to listen to the police scanner or monitor television news shows.  

So I’ve had some practice at tuning out distractions, and I have a healthy appreciation for the value of collaboration and open communication in the workplace. 

Nevertheless, when Principal Financial Group Inc. and some other Greater Des Moines companies were unveiling new open office plans awhile back, I couldn’t help but flash back to what happened when elementary schools went through that same phase.

Do you remember the open classroom designs that were all the rage in the 1970s? The classrooms I grew up in – rows of desks facing a lecturing teacher at the blackboard – were replaced by open spaces that encouraged collaboration, teamwork and hands-on learning. 

The design reflected education theory, but in practice, the classrooms were too noisy and students had too many distractions, so by the 21st century, most schools had remodeled those open classroom designs, taking them back to traditional classrooms with walls and desks. 

I was thinking about this as I skimmed through an advance copy of “The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had” by Edward G. Brown. Brown, a change management expert and the creator of the Structured Time and Workflow Management course for businesses, argues that we live and work in a culture of interruptions, which disrupt our workflow and account for us wasting between 40 percent and 60 percent of our day.

I’m a sucker for tips and books on how to be more efficient or to manage your time better, but I found Brown’s statistics hard to believe. And to clarify, Brown isn’t saying 40 to 60 percent of a worker’s time is a complete waste. Most of the interruptions are for other business functions – answering the phone, talking to clients or customers, reading email as it comes in – but he argues that we have become interruption addicts and those constant distractions often take us away from our most critical priority. 

And it’s not just the interruption, but the time and energy it takes to restart, the loss of momentum, the errors and do-overs involved when you are distracted from a project and the distress you feel as your day is progressing without getting your priority work done. 

All the Business Record news staff work in one room with no partitions or cubicles. We need to, and do, talk to each other spontaneously for good business reasons. As I am editing on deadline, I need to be able to ask reporters questions and get the answer immediately.  Reporters need to be able to talk to me when they run across a problem to receive immediate direction or to each other in order to do their jobs well. 

All that’s true, but I also have to admit to being one of the room’s worst interrupters – engaging in noncritical conversation whenever a thought might strike me or interrupting a reporter because of my impatient nature. 

Brown likes to use the words “time bandits” to describe those behaviors and habits that steal our most productive work from us. Furthermore, he says, we are our own worst time bandits. 

My time bandit behaviors are casual office conversations and joking around, reading and responding to email throughout the day, rather than just two or three times a day, checking or posting social media (mostly work-related) throughout the day, and multitasking.  

One of Brown’s key solutions is a practice he calls “time locking,” or setting aside a block of time in which employees are not to be distracted. This isn’t an individual strategy, he says. Instead, offices need to agree on the practice and then set up how it will be implemented. Minimum rules of thumb for successful time locking policies are:

Every worker had to time lock for at least one hour a day.
Supervisors couldn’t interrupt workers during time lock, and indeed, had to pledge to limit their interactions with subordinates in general.
Everyone gets time lock training, including how to respect it and how to cover for employees while they are in time lock.
And last, employees receive bonuses for increasing their productivity in time lock.

I haven’t figured out how our particular newsroom can keep the benefit of open communication and teamwork and still protect the critical concentration needed to write, read and think. But I do know that our typical day has two periods where we are intensely working together as a team, and the rest of the time, everyone is working on his or her own projects.  I also know that some of us are most productive early in the morning, while others get lots done by staying at work later. 

So, help us out here. How do you or how does your office, facilitate uninterrupted work time? And how does that fit with your office space? If you have any suggestions for us, please post them in the comments box below.

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Anne Carothers-Kay
Managing Editor, Business Record
@AnneCKay