Ban the “Drive-By” to Boost Productivity

What you can learn from one Ontario company’s ban on workplace interruptions

Written by Deborah Aarts

When was the last time you were able to complete a task—be it something as minor as drafting a to-do list or something as major as making a big funding decision—without interruption?

The typical modern workplace is filled with a near-constant stream of disruptions. I’m not just referring to the unending stream of emails, text messages and phone calls—irritants that are reasonably easy to silence (at least, temporarily). I’m talking about the colleague who rushes over, demanding an immediate answer to a question; the employee who can’t make even small decisions without your verbal approval; and even the good-hearted folks who solicit your input on this year’s Oscars. These occasional interruptions are manageable in isolation. But when you’re getting dozens of them an hour—a scenario familiar to anyone who’s ever been in charge—they can seriously slow down an otherwise productive day.

Read: The True Cost of Interruptions

Some people are able to work productively with frequent interjections. But many—perhaps even most—aren’t. That’s why I’m so intrigued by a policy that one Ontario company has adopted to eliminate  interruptions.

I was speaking recently with Julie Cole and Cynthia Esp, two of the four founders of Hamilton, Ont.-based label manufacturer Mabel’s Labels, to discuss the company’s results-only work environment (or ROWE). As the pair were outlining the ins and outs of their system (which you’ll be able to read more about in the April issue of Canadian Business), they casually mentioned how much better things have become since the company banned “drive-bys.”

Mabel’s Labels ranked No. 243 on the 2013 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. Declare your candidacy for this year’s ranking now!

What, I asked, is a drive-by?

A drive-by, they explained, is an unplanned, unsolicited interruption by one co-worker of another. And they’re simply not allowed at Mabel’s Labels. Employees are trained not to disrupt the work of anyone else in the organization unless it’s an actual emergency. And any employee, regardless of rank, has the ability to turn away someone who has barged in on their work.

It has been tough for a lot of the company’s employees to give up this behaviour; for many, it had become almost second nature. But people started to realize just how much more they were getting done sans interruptions.

“Constant interruption really affects productivity,” Cole explains. “So, we don’t do that here anymore. If you want to pick someone’s brain, you shoot them an email and communicate with them in a non-intrusive manner to set up a time to talk.”

Esp elaborates: “Really, the policy just forces people to read the social cues that should have been read before.”

Read: 7 Surefire Ways to Boost Staff Productivity

But doesn’t this make for a cold, even clinical workplace? Not so, says Esp. “We were really afraid the ‘no drive-by’ policy would interfere with our culture. We’re a friendly organization; dropping in and chatting with one another was part of who we were before,” she admits. “But we still meet up and talk with each other. We still help one another. We just book it ahead of time. It’s much more respectful of people’s time.”

“Your lack of organization is not my emergency” has become an unofficial mantra in the office

According to Esp and Cole, the policy has made everyone much more organized and, as a result, productive. “Your lack of organization is not my emergency” has become an unofficial mantra in the office.

Banning drive-bys, even if only during certain times of the day, strikes me as a dead simple (and inexpensive) way to keep everyone focused on the tasks at hand. Even if it does come at the expense of hearing Bob in accounting’s take on Ellen’s selfie.

Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.

More columns by Deborah Aarts

Would you consider making your workplace an interruption-free zone? What are the pros and cons of this approach? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com