I spend a lot of time communicating. Since I work from home most of the time, much of my communication takes place electronically. Working from outside the office greatly reduces the number interruptions. However, it also makes it impossible for people to see if you are very busy before interrupting you.
I have found that it helps a lot to share how you approach communications. For me it comes down to mostly three methods:
- instant messaging
- phone / video chat
They are, in order, the least to most interactive for me and I normally ask others to keep that in mind when engaging me.
For example email. It is very asynchronous for me. I do not have notifications turned on that would alert me when I receive an email. I check it a couple times an hour, when the context change works and I can dedicate time to email. Not being interrupted by every email helps me a lot to avoid frequent context changes and in turn keeps productivity high.
Side note: I used to suffer from email overload, which was mostly self induced because I was using my inbox as a working todo list and stack of note cards. Inbox Zero has changed that and I’m pretty diligent about it now.
Instant messaging, which we use heavily at work, is great for quick exchanges that benefit from greater interaction. That means that I try to highly responsive when I’m engaged via IM. To that end I make sure that my status in IM reflects my actual status and so I mark myself as “busy” when I really need to focus and as “away” when I’m not near the computer. To this end I use IMO.im, which allows me to force my status, rather then guessing that I might have stepped away, because I’m reading something. That takes a little extra effort but it seems worth it to me. When I am caught int he middle of something I need to wrap up, I normally respond immediately with something like “Give me 5 minutes to wrap something up”. That avoids having the other party just sitting at the monitor waiting for a response and allows me to keep my train of thought on the rails.
For times that require discussion or when someone really needs my full attention, there is always the phone or video chat. Again, here I try to be responsive and it’s a sure fire way to get my full attention.
Working from at home really cuts down on frequent “drive by” interruptions, but it’s also very easy to be “always on”, since the “office” is right there. So I make a conscious effort to not do work (in particular email) after hours or on the weekends. If something really requires my attention I do always carry my phone and various systems are also able to reach me and get my attention, generally via text message.
Side note: While I do have a smart phone, I have pretty much all notifications and alerts disabled. People and systems that need to get my attention still can, but otherwise the phone is a convenience for me and I don’t need to be a slave to every Facebook post, Tweet, or email that comes in.
That pretty much sums up how I generally tell people how I work.
On the flip side I try to practice what I preach. That means that I take a moment to determine the communication medium I choose when engaging others. For example, if I don’t need something immediately or don’t think that it requires quick back and forth, I go the email route and accept that it might be a little while before I hear back.
When reaching out via IM, I keep in mind that I’m probably interrupting and try to start with “Do you have a moment” or ask my question followed by “Not a big rush, but when you get a chance I’d like to discuss”. If it’s really important, I’m happy to state that there is some urgency.
That generally applies mostly to people with who I have few or far and between interaction. With frequent contacts, there is normally a good flow and understanding where most of this is implied.
When it comes to the phone or video chat, I normally start with an IM asking if the person has the time to chat for a few. Only in rare instances (normally some kind of emergency) do I just call or initiate a video chat request.
While this approach doesn’t work all the time, it has proved relatively successful for me over the years.