Scuba vs Snorkelling?
"Hey, are you snorkelling or scuba diving?"
It's a question you'll hear asked around the office from time to time. It's a bit of an odd question to ask a co-worker who is sitting at their desk with no large body of water in sight, but it's a question that can save frustration and wasted energy. Essentially, it means 'Are you in the middle of something or can you be interrupted?'. The idea is that while people are working they're in either one of two modes: snorkelling or scuba diving.
Snorkelling is where you skim around on the surface. In the ocean this means donning a snorkel and mask as you swim around, stopping to look down at different things for a while before swimming somewhere else. In the office, this translates to those times when you're working on a couple of different tasks- not really deep in concentration but working on smaller jobs. You're still working, but an interruption from a colleague isn't going to put you off too much. While you're snorkelling you can come back up to the surface quite easily and then return to what you were doing afterwards.
Scuba diving is when you go down into the depths of the ocean. It often takes longer to get down there and you stay down there for quite a while (fun fact: some professional divers practice a technique called saturation diving and live/sleep in an underwater habitation chamber and can stay down for days or even weeks at a time!).
If someone is Scuba Diving down in the depths of the ocean and they return to the ocean too quickly, they get decompression sickness (aka 'the bends' - aka 'death by tiny bubbles in your blood') which can be fatal. It's similar when you're deep in the middle of a task and get yanked out of your concentration by someone's interruption. The person's question may only take 1 minute to answer (although it's often more like 10 minutes!), but you can't then simply return straight to where you were before they interrupted. It can take time to return to your train of thought as you swim back down. In fact, some studies have found it can take over 20 minutes to return to a task after an interruption.
How to avoid the office-bends
One of the perils of working in an open office is that you can easily and unknowingly interrupt someone and then it takes them 20 minutes to work out what they were doing and get back in 'the zone'. Simply asking someone "Are you scuba diving?" is a quick way of asking if they're interruptible - and then they can simply reply "Yeah, give us 10 minutes" or "Yup- I'll come find you when I'm done".
We also use Slack at work which allows you to set your status as "do not disturb" for a set amount of time, which is a sign to others that you're in the deep sea working hard and is helpful to prevent interruptions, too.
You could simply ask someone "Got a minute?" - but I've found that it's hard to reply 'no' to this question without seeming rude. Instead, asking someone if they're scuba diving has a light-hearted element to the question which can empower them to honestly say 'yes' with a smile and return back to work.
One thing we’ve tried is to print out a little illustration of a person scuba diving - and stick it to your monitor when you’re down deep as a sign to others. Another idea is to wear headphones while you’re scuba diving (the bigger the better!). These are both simple visual cues to your colleagues that you’re in the middle of something and shouldn’t be disturbed.
So next time you're worried you're interrupting a co-worker, ask them if they're snorkelling or scuba diving. After some initial confusion you can explain the concept and become a workplace hero saving everyone hours of time (but only do this if you’re sure they’re not going to get the bends)!
A few links