In my first job out of college, I discovered that I couldn’t get any meaningful work done between 9:30am and 4:30pm.  Phone calls, voice mails, emails, pop-ins, meetings, and crises all seemed to devour my time.  Adding to this was that odd situation when people walked past my office. Was I supposed to say hello?  Or wave?  Or both? Then there were the ‘keyboard pounders’ and food crunchers, and don’t forget about that loud talker.

Yes, your office has a loud talker. If you don’t think so, then it’s probably you. I discovered this hard truth when one of my senior-level administrators told me in rather sharp terms that my volume level was a tad high.  It took me several days to lick my wounds, but after reflection, I regrouped and was thankful for the blunt feedback.  I love telling this story because it reminds me to be mindful of my office etiquette, including my volume.

My first job and all of its distractions also taught me about the importance of headphone mode: uninterrupted time to work on important projects. There wasn’t the technology that we have today, such as noise-canceling headphones, so by necessity, I discovered the 6:00am distraction-free zone.  But as I learned the hard way, this was no magic bullet. Others found this quiet time of the day, which was not a problem as long as they respected the “quiet time” part. But when they violated one of the unspoken rules and did something annoying, like pop-in and say hello, I cried.  How did they not understand that the reason for being in the office at 6:00am was quiet, non-social, uninterrupted time? Baffling. Anyway, the real point here is that no one wants office crying, so let’s figure this out.

People continue to go to the office early, stay late, or work remotely because they want uninterrupted time.  Thanks to technology, I use my Bose noise-canceling headphones instead of the 6:00am distraction-free zone.  The amount of quality work that gets produced during this time is remarkable!  I am not alone in the quest for, and appreciation of uninterrupted time. Studies support the value of uninterrupted time, such as the 2014 research by Steelcase and IPSOS, and my observations and interviews with hundreds of employees from different sectors and industries.  People value the uninterrupted time that allows them to work distraction-free. They want headphone mode.

There are lots of strategies in addition to noise-canceling headphones that can deliver this uninterrupted time.  Individuals can block time during the week for headphone mode and put it on their calendar like anything else of importance.  Perhaps start small, blocking one or two mornings per week, eventually building up to reserving a full day.  Another useful skill is learning how to say no—the more ‘stuff’ you can avoid, the less things will encroach on your scheduled time for important work.

Organizations can also help by establishing clear expectations for standard response times to emails and other forms of communication, reinforcing proper office etiquette, and reviewing their business rhythms. Being judicious with meetings and committees is critical and will free-up time for employee headphone mode. Companies should also ask their employees what works for them and then proceed in developing a plan that makes sense for both the employee and company.  The pros outweigh the cons.

Additionally, researchers have studied dedicated distraction-free time relative to employee engagement, retention, and productivity.  The 2014 research by Steelcase and IPSOS indicates that 86 minutes are lost daily due to distractions.  More alarming is the opportunity cost of interruptions: people in deep thought who are distracted might never regain their original train of thought.  Just ask an engineer or someone who writes code how they feel about an innocent pop-in when they are working on something of significance.  The 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace Report indicates that “41% of employees say they would switch jobs to have a personal workspace”, whereas only “6% of employees say they would switch jobs to have access to open workstations.”  The same Gallup report also indicates that employees who work remotely three to four days are more engaged, supporting the need for dedicated, uninterrupted time. Times are changing quickly relative to people’s work preferences, and organizations need to pay attention. Starting a conversation with employees about their need for headphone mode is an excellent place to start.

(Adapted from original article published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 3-27-18)