Leading Remote: Managing instant messaging interruptions

Leading Remote: Managing instant messaging interruptions

We've all faced days when our work Instant Messaging app was a nuisance. Here's a practical way to change instant messaging at work - for better!

There's an undeniable surge in services trying to improve communication inside organizations, once these have shifted to hybrid or remote working. While efforts are made having communication and interactions take place easier remotely, there is another side to the coin: employers that were already acting as a 'communications hub' have to become even more skilled at balancing individual time versus outside interruptions, since the 'interrupters' have received the super-power of instant messaging on Slack / Teams / Hangouts.

Instant Push Notifications are a powerful tool. If you don't already do this, you can start by creating a "Work Focus mode" on your phone. Don't let random apps disturb you. If you're waiting for deliveries to your door, you can add delivery apps on your exception list, and enable receiving calls. Or simply put the phone in full-DND and only check on it during breaks. I'd argue the "Inbox Zero" habit should now be replaced by "Zero irrelevant push notifications"-mantra.

However, blocking or delaying colleagues that are trying to reach you is not a part of the solution, it just postpones the problems and clusters the interruptions on your own terms. I'm not saying it's a bad approach, but you still want to lead the persons that are trying to reach you, and in a timely manner. Sometimes answering a team member or reading a comment just in time may save yourself a lot of trouble in the future. What you need is a systematic, leadership-oriented approach by which you elevate the quality and reduce the quantity of your incoming interruptions. So whenever somebody buzzes you, you know it's worth switching context.

In 2021, as a Chapter Lead of 14 chapter members spread in 10 delivery squads in a large organization at full speed at leveraging Microsoft Teams, I had to find a way to cope with interruptions. It's true that leadership roles are mostly about communication, but structure is always preferred. The following method is what I personally developed and at least one peer successfully used it; so if you too are struggling with being interrupted at work by instant messages or impromptu calls, this is something for you to try.

The LOG Method

L-O-G: Log, Organise, Get :chocolate-soft-serve-swirl-emoji: done

Keep an instant messaging log, by writing down every time somebody starts up a convo or a call with you. You want to write who messaged you and why. I also label them "self-initiated" if I was the one to start the conversation.

Step 1: Log

Make the habit of logging every conversation topic for 1-3 weeks. It helps keeping this file on your desktop, or open at all times. Although I'm a big fan of jotting down in markdown or in a structured data format (yml, json), I gave in and used a spreadsheet 'cause I always wanted to Excel at work 🥁.

I group interruptions by day, and always include who interrupted and the reason why.
Here's an example from mine, based on real data; persons and some details are made up.

31.01Johnself initiated: spotted something in his PR that was worth debating in the chapter meeting
Dannyabout our Edge browser support
Diddyabout an old user story on browser support
Joannepulled me in a design meeting
Jerryshared news about that tech meetup I was interested in
30.01Jadeself initiated: on that promote of insurance product that got us unprepared
Jordyon why we thought we had a "lite" version of change management for tiny changes - to be used for that insurance product
Jamilapulled in a meeting on planning promote of insurance product

Step 2: Organise

Once you have enough data, start labeling logged interruptions. The category labels will come to you :) don't worry for that. You'll see how the interruptions cluster around topics.

Or don't label. Simply read them, one after another. Patterns will start talking to you.

I'd ask you to extract the categories in a separate list, and sort them descending, by how much they generate noise in your Messaging app. But that's not the case for me. I simply could pin-point 2-3 big issues that were generating noise, straight away.

For instance, if we had documented our browser support list and shared that with QA chapter, my 31st of January would have had 2 less interruptions. Not to mention 30th of January was a wreck simply because somebody in my team had misinfo on the change management process.

Step 3: Get it done - the action items

For each category, it's you, the tech leader, that needs to come up with a plan to make your colleagues more autonomous and require your assistance less frequently. For me, that meant walking all of my chapter through change management process in all its intricacies, so at least they're aware of its steps and reasoning behind it. And made sure we have clear, up to date docs on the org wiki on what devices and browsers we support. At least these two shouldn't generate noise anymore in my Teams app.

In closing, there's no silver bullet for managing interruptions - it depends on the culture of the team, on the nature of your team's priorities and how good you can cope with context switch. When reaching for my Teams window, I prioritise my same reporting line peers (my first team), my direct reports and my manager. They should always hear back from me, almost immediately.

In large organisations, information overload is practically unavoidable: you have to turn off some channels to cope with it. If the info were important, it would eventually swing back to you. But as a leader, you are responsible for how you handle instant messaging and ad-hoc call interactions.