This Will Just Take a Minute

By Dave Favor, The Wise Owl

It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task an employee was working on when you asked for ‘just a minute.’ I first saw this statistic in an article by Kermit Pattison at Fast Company (Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching). Guess what? If you do it twice in the same interrupted period, it doubles the time it takes to get back on task.

Interruptions aren’t necessarily all bad, but they are disruptive. And more importantly they are frustrating. And when employees are frustrated they shut down. In addition, there is the stress that comes from being interrupted throughout the workday. In a small business or professional practice, you often cannot afford the inefficiency caused by interrupts.

I recognize that there are unplanned events that cause interruptions, but there are two kinds of interrupts that just seem to annoy me more. The first is with employees who have not been trained properly. They are stalled with ‘what do I do next’ and seek opinions from other employees. The interrupt cycle has now spread over all your staff and lost time continues to mount. This high maintenance employee makes a leap that if a question is always answered there is no reason to learn to be able to operate independently, so the problem never gets addressed. This is a training issue from start to finish.

The second is with the highly skilled or “professional” employee who thinks that some tasks are beneath them. They have technical skills but not very much of what I call “street smarts.” They often do not realize all the steps within the process and are stalled when the system fails. Something like the copier being out of paper may stop everything. They will interrupt the flow by seeking help from whomever they can find. This is generally a process issue.

It is bad enough when your co-workers do it, but what happens if your leadership team does it? That is the worst case because the employee feels compelled to stop what they are doing to comply. I have been in law firms where interruptions are the norm. The staff is in complete reaction mode. It seems that the staff is there only to respond to the changing needs of the leadership. These interrupts can be important in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed process or business system will always win. The primary reason a process wins is that many things get forgotten or overlooked when you are being reactive. This causes more frustration and more lost time. Having a system is what works, and until leadership buys into it, the employees continue to be in reactive mode. Remember that people like to know the rules of the game so they can win the game.

Some would say that the staff is there to respond to the leader’s request. History would show that this is self-limiting and an expensive way to run a business. The problem is a small business like a law firm often does not have enough staff to avoid interruptions. High priority interrupts happen all the time. The work culture tends to define if it is reactive (small, ‘just a minute projects’) or proactive with tasks being scheduled and performed with minimal interruptions by both leadership and other employees. We get into this a little more when we discuss strategic planning. What you need is a compromise position.

Any solid strategic plan includes a defined business system. Strong case management software is available and sometimes at a pretty good cost. I have seen many a purchase and investment made, only to have failure in execution because the leadership does not like the parameters of assigning work through the system. The bottom line is that a business system that relies on memory versus assigned tasks with due dates fails and is totally inefficient. The result is random interrupts as staff reacts to the immediate needs.

Imagine losing several hours of productivity per week and then your employee ends up working over-time at time and a half to make up the lost time. Frustration takes a high cost in employee productivity. Healthy employees want to know how to win the game and they can’t do it if there is no stability.

The bottom line is this: There is an intangible benefit for you in allowing your employees to work in a minimal-interrupted environment. If they aren’t being interrupted, you also are not interrupted. You can come in, meet with your team, define the hot topics, make sure their tasks are relevant and get out of the way. When employees feel empowered and in control they exceed your expectations. And when they exceed expectations your return on investment soars!

Dave Favor is the President and principal in Catalyst Group, Inc. He brings to the table over 50 years high level business and management experience, including time at IBM and as a private consultant at major fortune 500 companies. Dave’s experience allows him to bring to the table a way of running a business that small business and law firms can strategically leverage. A teacher of self-mastery, leadership and business principles, he is a believer in value-based living and working; Dave is truly the Wisest of Owls. Catalyst Group, Inc. is located in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is known for its mentoring of small businesses and law firms.