The other day, while I was composing an email, one of the developers on my team came by to ask me about something. While I was in discussion with him, someone else walked in and asked a question on a totally divergent topic. Later, the second person said, "You seemed annoyed yesterday."
I suppose that I was.
It seems that the work that we do doesn't lend itself to clear signals about when we can and cannot, or should not, be interrupted. If a model builder is constructing a model ship in a bottle, and a visitor comes by as she is attaching a spar, he probably will not interrupt her. He'll wait until she finishes the task, and sets down her tools.
For many "knowledge workers," there's no such physical signal. There we sit, staring vaguely at a video screen, alternating between typing and looking into space. We don't "look" busy. And if we're talking to someone at our desk, then it seems that we're not even working (since our work requires typing, or at least mousing).
Of course, when you think about it, you know it's not so.
As knowledge workers, we work in our heads. The keyboard or whiteboard or deskside conversation are means of expression, but the real work is going on between our ears. Sometimes this is a fairly low intensity activity. And sometimes it's not. Some topics are very complex. Some discussions are explorations of new mental territory. Sometimes the parts are just about to gel into a greater whole.
We're often holding a lot of what developers call "state" in our heads. When something interrupts us, we need to mentally put all of that aside in a manner that lets us pick it up later. Some of us are better at it than others, but it's not an easy thing for anyone.
In the novel 'The Mote in God's Eye' by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a character describes a difficult task thusly: "We juggle priceless eggs in variable gravity." That's what it feels like sometimes. Being interrupted at the wrong moment means that we lose track of those eggs, usually to unfortunate consequence.
This doesn't mean that we can never be interrupted. Sometimes we're between tasks, taking a break, or just not deeply into a topic. But it's hard to tell by looking (unless I'm obviously checking the hockey pool...). So what should a visitor do?
Here are some guidelines.
Please, don't "phone ahead." That device, which suddenly and rudely clamours for attention, is an arch enemy of the priceless eggs.
Email is infinitely preferable, as it waits for my attention to become free.
It's also OK to drop by. Face to face contact is often the best way to communicate. But when you do ...
Sometimes we'll greet you and interact normally. No problem!
Sometimes we'll be less responsive. We might glance at you, make eye contact of a sort, and then turn away. We're not dismissing you, we're just juggling eggs. Give us a few moments to put our thoughts in order, just as you'd wait for the shipbuilder to set down her tools.
Occasionally we won't even look at you. Maybe we don't know you're there. Maybe the eggs are about to fly off in fourteen different directions. If we don't respond to a knock or initial verbal sally, it's probably the latter. Normally we'll eventually acknowledge you with a (polite) gesture. If you can wait, please do so. If you can't, by all means interrupt if your need is truly urgent. But don't expect a joyful response.
It's usually a subtle thing. It may be a only matter of seconds for us to finish a thought, type a bit, and then turn around. If you can wait for us to compose those thoughts, you'll get our full attention, and we'll both be happier.
This can be a hard thing to do. I have trouble with it myself, sometimes, when I'm bursting with the need to ask someone a question so that I can get back to my own work. But it will be much appreciated. Think of those precious eggs next time, and we'll get along fine.