We are a small team of software developers where everybody knows everybody, and we work in an open space. Naturally, this means that whenever we need to ask a question or get some information that is within the realm of someone else's expertise, we just walk up to them and ask. And this happens frequently, at least once a day.

I can't speak for everyone else, but this usually knocks me out of my "flow". Ideally, I could just ask everyone to e-mail me whenever they need anything, but that might be seen as asking for special treatment, and I'm not sure how it will be taken.

So, have you ever worked in such an environment? And if so, what are some of the techniques you have used to stay productive/in the zone?


The first thing you have to accept is that you will not be able to stop all interruptions. Sometimes the needs of your colleagues are really worth the 20-30 minutes lost by interrupting you. Only getting interrupted once a day sounds like heaven to me frankly :) E-mail is not always the most effective way to communicate. Forcing everything to be asynchronous can waste a lot of time, so I would not recommend that as a solution.

Some things that have helped (nothing here is a silver bullet though)

  1. Agree on a block of time that is free from routine meetings. Our team decided that all routine meetings should be scheduled prior to 11:30 so that we would have large blocks of time in the afternoons for focused work. This puts everyone on the same schedule so that we're all trying not to be interrupted at the same time.

  2. Book 20-30 minutes of "break-out" time immediately following your daily stand-up. This time doesn't have to be used, but it can not be scheduled over with other meetings. If everyone knows that all of the people they need to talk to are going to be available at the same time daily, a lot of questions and discussions can wait until that time. Also, if anything comes up at the stand-up, you have time to talk about it right then instead of having to schedule something. Our product owners and management are also booked for that break-out time even though they don't participate directly in the stand-up.

  3. If we have something mission critical, whoever needs to work on it blocks time on our calendars and announces at the stand-up how long we need to be in "nothing but this one thing" mode and who is covering our normal stuff. If you have a small team working on basically one thing, you might not need this because any mission critical thing is likely to involve the entire team.

  4. Give team members laptops and someplace they can go to "hide" for short periods when they need to focus. Sometimes just being away from your desk but still available in the building is enough to limit interruptions to the important ones. I realize that's not an option for everyone. We remote into our more powerful development servers so laptops work for us.

Some things that haven't been successful (but your results may vary)

  1. Devices, flags, or other things that indicate we're busy and shouldn't be interrupted. If people can see you, it's really hard for them to pretend they can't and really easy for them to justify how important their one little thing is...

  2. Explaining to people not to interrupt you. It is very difficult to find the balance between "stay off my lawn!" and "drop by if you need help". You will find that some people won't come talk to you when they should because they don't want to annoy you and some people will come interrupt you because they felt something couldn't wait that you think could have. It's better to work on the environment that encourages the right behavior.


So, have you ever worked in such an environment? And if so, what are some of the techniques you have used to stay productive/in the zone?

Here are my two ideas:

  1. Even if you've worked in a chin-height, walled cubicle environment like I have, verbal and visitation interruptions frequently tend to disrupt work flow. An open office environment would only be worse, and people generally greatly dislike them for reasons that you've indicated. I think it's a fad of the era we're in, and, hopefully soon, offices will be changing back to what they were...closed and fewer distractions. If I saw that a potential employer had an open office environment, I'd probably look elsewhere.

  2. The only things I can offer is to suggest music through earphones or some other white noise to disconnect from your surroundings. Let's face it, you can't hide under the table. When someone comes to you with a question that doesn't pertain to your zone, you have to extract yourself from your zone in order to give them your full attention. It certainly takes effort to get back into the zone. Maybe try to appear more unapproachable in a sympathetic way. Maybe try to appear as if something is deeply troubling you. Or, when someone asks you a question, don't look at them as you answer. Appear distracted by your own work.

    This may not be a good idea for you, but I've actually done this to an exceptionally disruptive person in my office on several occasions. I've told her that I'd get back to her once I've considered her problem more fully. I'd get back to her hours later. You could also try being overly or annoyingly helpful. Answer their question, but in an extremely round-about and time-consuming way. Venture off into only somewhat related anecdotes. In other words, if an animal keeps coming for scraps, sour the scraps.

The open work environment is a horrible environment and, when I first learned of it about 10+ years ago, I knew it was a ridiculous idea/approach.


You get used to getting back in the zone quickly or you forget about getting a paycheck.

I'd love not getting interrupted as a senior, but the fact that I am a senior is exactly why management, staff and customers zero in on me. I get annoyed if they ask me questions whose answers they could have easily worked out themselves. I not only give them the answer, I tell them how to go about figuring it out or looking it up and hopefully, that's the last I see of them until they interrupt me again. I prefer getting a lot of short interruptions that I can quickly deal with. None of us is immune from interruptions. The CEO will slam the door of his office to signify to the rest of us peons in the strongest possible terms that he is not to be interrupted, only to have his landline phone ring from behind his door within 30 seconds :) Serves him right.

My attitude is, as long as they pay me, I don't care if I am interrupted. If I hand in a deliverable late because I've been interrupted a few times more than usual, it is what it is and I pass on the missed deadline to management as their cost of doing business. I can't really afford to be negative about being interrupted. We work as part of the team and anything I do to support the members of the team as well as the team as a whole - that's at least as important as my own individual tasks.

Sometimes, the interruption works well for me. I may be bogged down on the issue and the interruption gives me a chance to look at the problem with fresh eyes and work out a different approach.

  • I like your philosophy. Helping your co-workers is certainly work for the good of the team. It should be highly considered if deadlines aren't met. Nevertheless, some employers are idiots and will come down hard on the helpful person who missed the deadline. Jan 17 '17 at 0:20
  • @Inquisitive - there is management that expects you to hand in your work as if your deliverables were the only consideration, and they completely ignore your responsibility to support the team's work until you remind them. The world never ever runs out of assholes :) Jan 17 '17 at 0:23
  • So incredibly true! Believe me, I've experienced it many times. People FREQUENTLY come to me for help. That's fine, but I don't want to be crucified by management if I'm late on something else. Jan 17 '17 at 0:26
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    @Inquisitive - If wishes had wings and a rocket engine, I'd be a fighter pilot :) The choice sometimes is between getting the paycheck and getting crucified for free, or (gasp) not getting a paycheck. Jan 17 '17 at 0:28
  • I get interrupted an average of 20-30 times a day. But that is part of my job as senior person, so I just accept it and move on. Whining about it doesn't help and it makes you take longer to get back into the flow of work when you let it bother you.
    – HLGEM
    Jan 17 '17 at 15:09

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