News Flash: Most Phone Calls Are Interruptions

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Robby Slaughter Robby Slaughter

There’s something special about reading this blog post. It’s not me. It’s not us. It’s the fact that you decided to look, click, and keep going. That makes it distinctive from other forms of media.

An astonishing amount of the information in our world arrives as interruptions. That means we have no choice but to deal with it (or at least spend time ignoring it.) And if your job deals with the life and safety of others, those interruptions can have an even bigger impact. According to a study in the academic journal Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology, some 92% of calls made to the X-Ray room have a negative impact on workflow.

An article in Radiology Business explains:

Radiologists field hundreds of calls a week in the reporting room, corresponding author Christopher Watura, MBChB, and colleagues wrote. Of those calls, less than 10 percent are considered appropriate interruptions to radiologists’ workflow. “It is part of everyday practice for healthcare professionals to interrupt one another to communicate urgent information,” Watura et al. wrote. “When an individual’s attention is diverted from [the] primary task, memory of the primary task begins to decay while processing the interrupting task. After returning to complete the remainder of the primary task, the likelihood of making an error is increased.”

This information shouldn’t be a surprise to most professionals. If your job is to get things done and then the phone rings, it often prevents you from getting those things done.

It’s not as if the telephone is always evil. Our own Jack Klemeyer explains that selling over the phone can be a great way to reach out to people you already know and offer them a product or service that makes sense. Even if it is an interruption, it can end up being valuable.

And Ashley Lee has written about telephone productivity tactics before. Her advice is to think about the seconds and minutes you’re spending, and make changes accordingly.

But there’s something bigger at stake: telephone protocol inside organizations. In short, you should almost never interrupt another person you work with by calling them on the phone.

Why We (Almost) Never Call Each Other

Just like the study of X-ray technicians, phone calls inside organizations typically interrupt workflow. If you need to tell someone else something, you can probably send them an email. In years and years of working with some of our current team members, I can’t think of the last time we spoke on the phone unscheduled. We all get things done every day. We all contribute to the organization. But why do we need to speak to each other live and without any planning?

Obviously, emergencies happen. But they are rare, and in most businesses, they can be mitigated with planning. It’s not that we should be afraid to call people on the phone. But rather, we should only do it when we are confident it’s worth interrupting their workflow.

Because sometimes, there is a real crisis and we need to get the relevant people on the phone. But that is extremely uncommon.

Scheduled Calls Are Great

If an unplanned, unexpected call interrupts people and negatively impacts their ability to get back to work, what about putting one on the calendar?

As long as it meets the criteria of any other good meeting (one that exists to make decisions, brainstorm new ideas, or possibly to conduct some training) then it’s a fantastic idea. Everyone who is participating can plan their day around the pre-existing schedule. They won’t be interrupted. And they can follow up the call by getting back to work.

Hopefully the phone won’t ring the next time you’re in the radiologist’s office. But if it does, hopefully they won’t be distracted and make a mistake on your X-ray. The ability to concentrate matters. Help your team to do it by giving them the space to get things done.

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