SALLY has been sitting at her computer terminal for three hours without a break. She has been engrossed in a report she is writing and time is passing quickly.
She stops and glances at the clock, saying to herself: "Four o'clock. Wow. I didn't know it was so late. I need to stretch. I'll get a cup of coffee."
On her way to the pantry, she passes Brenda's desk. Brenda is just getting off the phone.
"Hi, Brenda. How are you today?"
"Fine. I've just got so much to do."
"I know how that is. I've been working late on that report for Simmons for the last week and I'm still not done.
"But last night, I needed a diversion so I saw this great DVD, Top Gun. Have you seen it? It's about this gorgeous fighter pilot. He gets to go to the top fighter pilot training school in the country, but he keeps getting into trouble because he's a maverick. In fact, that's his code name. Once he had to disobey orders in order to..."
On and on she goes while Brenda keeps thinking of all the data she needs to enter and process.
Is Sally totally oblivious to Brenda's lack of interest in what she is saying? Is she an unconscious bore? Why doesn't she leave when Brenda just said she was bogged down with work?
Because Sally needs some contact with people after working at her computer terminal for so long!
In Megatrends, John Naisbitt coined a term, "high-tech/high-touch". He believes that the more high-tech (working alone on a computer) interactions we have in our lives, the more we need to balance those with high-touch (being with people) interactions. Most of us have a need for human interactions.
The term "high-touch" isn't literal - you don't need to hug your colleagues after a day on the computer (although it might feel good). Satisfying conversation is an example of high-touch.
The length of time one can work at a computer terminal before needing some interaction with people varies widely, depending on personality and circumstances. Sometimes it may only be an hour - at other times, it may be a full day or more.
If you work on a computer terminal for long periods, check your own high-touch clock. You may recognise the symptoms of needing a physical release: neck aches, eye strain, headache or even a sore seat. These symptoms can trigger the need to move around and also, often, the idea to talk with someone.
Log your urges for people interaction for a few weeks and see what the balance between high-tech and high-touch is for you. When you have gathered sufficient data, then you can schedule your much-needed people time.
For example, if you know you'll be working on the terminal all day and your high-tech limit is one or two hours, then plan to take your break with a friend. Set a time limit for your high-touch breaks - and then stick to them.
At work, discuss how everyone can minimise their interruptions with each other. Agree on some signals that will tell the interrupter it is not a good time to talk. Some groups use signs like "Please do not disturb" or "Thank you for not interrupting".
Others find verbal phrases more effective, like "I'm under a bit of pressure right now. Could we discuss this at another time?"
If these signals are agreed upon ahead of time, the interrupter is likely to leave without getting upset.
Be honest and assertive with your chronic or inappropriate interrupters. They are probably not aware that they are bothering you or keeping you from something.
Most people want you to say something rather than let them rattle on if it is not a good time. Don't expect them to mind read because they won't. And many people won't pick up on your subtle body language messages trying to tell them this is not a good time.
Understanding that your colleagues' interruptions may be a way of fulfilling their high-touch/high-tech needs will help you have more patience with the chronic abusers, but you should still let your needs be known.
Don't allow your work to be put off just because you understand what is happening. Again, see if you can schedule the socialising time, if that is what they are doing.
You can control many of the unwelcome interruptions in your life. Be willing first to look at how you interrupt yourself and how you interrupt others.
As technology continues to rapidly affect our jobs, the need to balance our lives with "high-touch" increases. By understanding our needs in a technical environment, we can both get our work done and keep up with our colleagues' movie reviews.