Active vs Passive Interruptions

In all work environments people have to communicate. Sometimes they are across the hall and sometimes they are across the world, but in every case someone initiates the contact and the other must decide what to do. The Initiator must first choose the method, whether it’s a phone call, text message, email, etc.

Does your question really require an immediate response?

What makes these methods different is level of interruption of the person being contacted. If you take my call, I am not just asking a question. I’m also requesting that you remove yourself from the context of your current task and prepare an answer for me immediately. If an answer is not available, I at least want a response with an estimated time of when it can be answered. A question spoken out loud and in person is an even greater disruptor, since the receiver has almost no choice to ignore the question. These interruptions can be powerful detriments to productivity if it takes a certain amount of time for the receiver to reorient himself into his previous context. A recent study said these transactional costs can be up to “28 percent of a worker’s day.

A potential interrupter should ask themselves, “Does a quick answer to this problem justify a disruption in someone else’s time?” If not, use a more passive method of communication like email or text messaging to get the information you’re looking for. That way the receiver can answer them with the least disruption possible to their productive time. The interrupter should use the least disruptive communication method that results in getting an answer in the appropriate time.

In order of most interruptive to least:

  • Active: Asking a question out loud
  • Active: Phone calls
  • Active: Paging
  • Passive: Physical note left on desk
  • Passive: Text messages
  • Passive: Emails
  • Passive: Memo left in mailbox
  • Passive: Other passive electronic methods other than Email

It’s partly for this reason I have stopped taking voice mail on my land line at work. It used to be a dump for solicitors and rarely contained messages I needed. It took time to sort through and delete them and I also didn’t have access to it remotely like email. My greeting now says I don’t take voicemail and to please send me an email.