The Danger of Easy Access


Merlin Mann over at 43Folders has preached long and loud about the danger of being always available to anyone and everyone who needs or wants our help. When we don't value our limited time and attention sufficiently, we open the floodgates to infinite requests from coworkers -- to our detriment.

Don't get me wrong: helping friends or colleagues is a wonderful lubricant for social intercourse. But if the metaphorical or literal door to our offices are always open, it's alarmingly easy to get pulled away from what's really important to our jobs, and we find ourselves spending time proofreading press releases on how our company is leading the market for puppy-themed golf umbrellas.

Now comes word that closing the door will become even harder. An article last week in CNN/Money points out that office layouts are increasingly being tailored to facilitate collaboration. Tom Vecchione of Gensler, an international architectural firm, says that the standard 80%-to-20% office ratio of desk space to meeting space has shifted over the last few years. Now 60% of the space is for office work and 40% for meetings. And a study by Knoll, the office furniture firm, finds that open meeting areas as a percentage of floor space will double in three years.

So how are you going to handle that change? Already, the instant access provided by IM, text messages, and Blackberries has broken down many of the barriers that enabled us to work -- efficiently, productively, and in peace -- on the projects that are important to us. What happens when the physical barriers collapse as well? How are you going to (in Merlin's words) "firewall" your time?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Get professorial: establish "office hours" when you make yourself available for collaboration. The rest of the time should be for you and your work. The tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and a pipe are optional, of course.
  • Get lean: in the tradition of Toyota's andon, put up a sign at your cube or office that says when you'll be available to talk. You'll be amazed at how often your colleagues' "emergencies" are driven by their uncertainty regarding when they're going to see you next. If they know that you'll be able to help them in 25 minutes, they're more likely to leave you alone.
  • Get out: pack your bags and your computer, and go into a conference room. People will think you're on a conference call with some distant supplier, and you'll look really important, too.
  • Get off: the electronic leash, that is. Yes, I know you're afraid that the company will grind to a halt without your constant, loving attention to every email the instant it arrives, but just give it a try. Quit Outlook and get that clean, fresh feeling that used to only come with Irish Spring.

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