Ever since I wrote Spellchecking Pair I've been noticing other patterns concerning pairing. Distracted Pair, as the name implies, is a pair who is easily distracted by their surroundings.
Distracted pairs tend to spend less time typing, because they are always busy helping everyone around them. Distracted pairs are not useless; in fact they generally contribute significantly to the code the pair is working on. However, distracted pairs are rarely contributing at their full potential because they are generally attempting to solve the problems of multiple pairs at the same time. Some distracted pairs can also spend too much time checking email and doing other ancillary tasks.
Joel believes that open space working areas are fun but not productive. While I don't agree with him, I can see how a few distracted pairs could easily make a manager draw that conclusion.
I've been a distracted pair. I've also worked with several distracted pairs. I believe that it happens to all of us from time to time. In the past I've seen distracted pairs managed by creating rules. For example, a "no personal laptops in the development room" rule existed on a previous project. This rule can help address the problem, but it creates other problems.
My preferred method of handling a distracted pair is to practice Ping Pong Pairing. Ping Pong Pairing forces both pairs to be paying attention at level one. Another nice attribute of this suggestion is that it doesn't require any additional rules that could have problematic side effects.
I'm led to believe that Joel doesn't believe in Pair Programming either, so my solution may be worthless to him. However, if you are working in an environment where Pair Programming is embraced, I suggest using Ping Pong Pairing to get the most out of working with a Distracted Pair.