Unlimited Access to People – Good Or Bad?

Modern Corporate Life

The modern corporate world isn’t getting any easier in which to survive and prosper. Access to people is almost ubiquitous. Individuals appear to be getting more and more emails. Mobile phones are a permanent fixture in most people’s hands. Instant messaging is taking the place of real communication.

A couple of years ago I did some work with a multinational client and due to data security issues they insisted that I used their own corporate laptop so that all access to their data was controlled and audit trailed. As the assignment was due to last a couple of months I agreed.

On the first morning when I logged on, I received 40 emails without prompting for any. Some of these were personally addressed to me. These were standard corporate information messages. In addition to email came the standard issue instant messaging software. Although useful at first, it some became clear that it was abused by some people. I started to get messages from people who decided that their query was your priority and this can lead to constant distractions. Even with the “Busy” or “In a Meeting” symbol displayed – messages still came in hard and fast. Although we try to ignore these – they are still a distraction. What I normally do in this case is disconnect from the network temporarily – remove the Ethernet cable or disable the wireless adapter on the PC. (Note: This will only suffice if you do not need connectivity to a network or database – that is if you are writing or reviewing a document etc)



If you have blocked the time out in your calendar and you need the time and space – then try working offline now and again to avoid interruptions. If someone needs you badly enough they will either call your cell phone or come and get you.

Fending Off Disruptors

You may then get someone approaching you at your desk with the opening line “Do you have a minute?” You may have a minute or not but my advice is to learn to say “No I don’t – I really need to get this task complete now.” If they do manage to just ask the question without confirming that you have time – then If you can’t answer the request in 30 seconds – simply say that you do not have time now but your calendar is up to date if you wish to set some time up at a later stage. The initial reaction from most people is one of horror as they may be well used to a culture of barging in to an office or a desk and getting attention. Judge the culture in the company – are they ready for this yet? Logical thinking professional people will always respect your space and will respond positively whereas unreasonable people will tend to resist this culture change.

The Daily Churn

Sitting in the offices with the other employees I watched the daily habits and interactions. e.g. Most people would spend the first 30 minutes going through their email to sift out any important ones. Among the deluge was the inevitable distraction, someone in their wisdom had sent a message and cc’d a few select others regarding an issue or task that required action immediately. (And this happened most mornings)

These types of email become a distraction in two ways;

1. The initial reaction of the recipient.

2. The recipient then brings others in on the issue.

Now we have a second layer of distraction – possibly even a group of people distracted. The email will be followed by the inevitable number of drafts until the message is received loud and clear. They send and wait for the response and the email tennis ensues.

Decontaminate and Conquer

In order to decontaminate this scenario here are some practices I use that almost always certainly manage and contain a scenario like this.

1. Don’t check your email first thing each morning unless there is a specific response or update you are awaiting in order to complete a priority task.
2. By checking email first thing you are inviting others to provide a distraction
3. Complete a task first then read emails. That way if you do get distracted, at least you will have accomplished something first.
4. If you do receive an email that you need to respond to in order to contain a panic, try to speak to the person first. If this is not possible, set up a brief meeting. If neither of these are possible in the short term, don’t respond until you have spoken to the person in question.
5. Unless needed for specific input or advice avoid bringing a wider audience into the issue. Your colleagues will appreciate it.
6. If you absolutely have to respond to an email that is likely to stir up a response that could escalate then be constructive. Before sending, print off a draft, go to a quiet office and read it aloud. How does it sound? If it is still the right thing to do, then reading it aloud will confirm this.

In Summary

So don’t be afraid to say “No” in the correct context, but be polite when you say “No”. If you need to get something done, then you don’t need distractions. Seek the space to focus. Avoid email tennis as it general only wastes time. Email should really only be used for booking a meeting or sending a document. Talk to the person first, in person or on the phone, if that is not possible – use email to say “Call me when you have time – we need to talk.”

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