How do I keep coworkers from wasting my time?
June 12, 2009 6:43 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep coworker friends from taking breaks by chatting with me in my office?

Today three friends/coworkers came into my office at different times to chat about this and that because they didn't feel like working. I did.

This is starting to happen more and more frequently. How can I discourage it without being mean? Specifically, I need suggestions for (a) keeping them from walking into my office in the first place or (b) getting out of the subsequent conversation:

Friend: (walks into office) "How are you doing"?
Me: "Pretty good. I'm working hard on this calculation."
Friend: "I can't seem to get any work done. Blah blah blah. It's so gloomy outside. Blah blah blah. Coworker X is so annoying. Blah blah blah. I like it here. I'm going to sit down and never leave!
Me: ????

I am having a really hard time interrupting and saying "I'm really busy right now". Is there a nice way to say this? One of these people (the worst time waster) is kind of a superior, so I need to be really polite.

I've tried being sort of unresponsive, but that isn't working.

I'd rather not shut my door or get rid of my extra seating because I welcome work-related interactions and visits from students (I work in an academic setting).

I've thought about leaving my office and heading to the bathroom, but that can only work so many times.

Any other suggestions?
posted by pizzazz to Work & Money (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What about leaving your door ajar? Open just a few inches?
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 6:48 PM on June 12, 2009

Me: ????

"Kinda busy. Can you COME BACK LATER?"
posted by rokusan at 6:53 PM on June 12, 2009

Dollars to doughnuts your technique of being unresponsive is read by them as "what a great listener!".

After answering a comment or greeting of theirs, something along the lines of "I'm not very good company right now- working on such and such but I'll come by to chat if I have time" can work well, you don't have to return the visit or anything, just be sure to say goodnight.
posted by variella at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

man, i'm swamped right now - can we catch up later?
posted by nadawi at 6:57 PM on June 12, 2009

Interjecting after an interloper's first pause and saying "That's great, but I'm really quite busy and will have to catch you later, unless I can offer you a hand with [their business]" is one of modern life's more horrible chores, and that's why millions of minutes of banal, one-sided chitchat take the place of proper work every month.

But it's simple, honest and doesn't have to be unfriendly. A person's negative response to hearing it is usually in proportion to that person's generally dickishness anyhow. If you're concerned about work-relationship fall-out, then a good maneuver would be to chat freely and enthusiastically with your frequent visitors during more appropriate opportunities.
posted by chudmonkey at 6:59 PM on June 12, 2009

I've always treated chatty work superiors as legalized downtime - they're forcing you to pay attention to their stupid monologue, don't think they don't know it. Nod periodically and think about other things. The other folks you can afford to give the bum's rush to: "Sorry, but I need to get this done or I won't be out by five" – "This stuff's running late so I've got to finish" – "Isn't that your mother calling?"
posted by zadcat at 7:00 PM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Put a dish with candy or treats, something that makes it hard to talk when you eat it. When your visitors start talking, tell them: "I'm sorry, I'm in the middle of a calculation and I'm losing my count (or whatever.) But feel free to grab a candy." In other words: I'm not asking you to leave, but eat this and shut up.
posted by clearlydemon at 7:09 PM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wear headphones. You don't have to actually have any music playing. There's something about wearing headphones that seems to repel people. This might not be 100% effective, but I've found it makes a big difference.
posted by Vorteks at 7:18 PM on June 12, 2009 [7 favorites]

Another vote here for the direct route: "Wow, that sounds tough. I'd love to chat, but I really need to get this done. Can we catch up later?" I'm also in an academic setting, and that's the only thing that has ever worked for me in the same circumstances.
posted by amelioration at 7:23 PM on June 12, 2009

I'm one of those people who tend to go chat with others when I need a break. I'd like to think that I'm not infringing too much on people's time, and that they also welcome the break. One thing that signals "this conversation needs to be over" to me is the slow turn to the computer.

You: "haha that's great. Turns out I also hate math, weird." ... slow turn away. Great way to begin an obvious sign off.

When the shoe is on the other foot, I usually use: "Oh you have some free time? Awesome. Unfortunately I'm right in the middle of something. Happy hour/Lunch/3 o'clock break later? Send me an email and we'll work something out." That way your are showing you are still interested in whatever they have to say - and you'll hopefully be able to transfer the conversation to a medium with some greater control.
posted by gagoumot at 7:57 PM on June 12, 2009

You simply need to reciprocate the intrusions a few times and drop some hints to the offenders. Wait tell they are in the middle of something, and then chat them up to the point of distraction. When it looks like they can't possibly handle anymore, get up and walk away while talking about the work you need to take care of.

If you're lucky, they'll have a reply about needing to get work done. You use this same reply whenever they are intruding upon your time from now on.

Unless they are daft, they will certainly think twice about interrupting you.

I can only speak to my experience in the matter, but this seemed to work for me.

Good luck, it's a pain in the ass to deal with this type of thing. Really unnecessary, but sometimes unavoidable.
posted by Gravitus at 8:07 PM on June 12, 2009

I used to make a joke out of it - "Last call for work! You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!" Follow up with a "Just kidding, but I'm really swamped. Can we catch up later?"

Except for the superior, sometimes they just like to get out & give people a chance to talk to them.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:22 PM on June 12, 2009

Just get up and started walking toward the water cooler or bathroom; only a really persistent person will follow you. But really you just have to learn to be assertive. There are people who will follow you into the bathroom and continue talking. ???

I, for some reason, have no problem getting rid of people. I tend to go to the bathroom or water cooler when people come by because they have broken my concentration and I should take the opportunity to have a mini break.
posted by Gor-ella at 8:24 PM on June 12, 2009

Just say "sorry, but I really can't chat, I'm swamped right now" not unkindly, then ignore them. If they stay, say "if you'll excuse me, I've got to make some calls/concentrate on this proposal/prepare for a meeting/whatever."
posted by desuetude at 8:53 PM on June 12, 2009

This is not a direct solution, but I've dealt with the chatty superior drop-in as well, and I have found a sometimes useful solution. I have my work phone number programmed as a cell speed dial. The way my desk is set up (and this may not work for you), my cell is close to my hands, but out of sight, so I've occasionally used it to call my work line. For some reason, a ringing phone seems to make people really realize I'm working, and they leave right away. Of course, I work in a business, rather than an academic environment, so that may not work for you. It's also not assertive in the slightest, but perhaps useful if you need to get rid of people to whom you aren't comfortable being assertive.
posted by Caz721 at 9:05 PM on June 12, 2009

Best answer: Put a precarious-looking pile of papers in the lid of a copier paper box on the seat of your guest chair(s). Discourages the casual sitter, easy to remove for people who you want to stay awhile.
posted by jamaro at 9:12 PM on June 12, 2009

Um. You -want- a certain amount of coming and going at your Assigned Work Station. Yes, it is difficult to make time for people but if you want to know what's going on you have to have your finger on the pulse of the place. There are times when this sucks, and badly, but I have never worked at a place where 90% of the decisions that matter were -not- made in casual meetings just like the ones you describe.
posted by jet_silver at 9:37 PM on June 12, 2009

All day long I do this to other people, and they do this to me, and we all get along just fine, because we say things like...

(turns around in chair, makes eye contact) "I totally missed everything you just said, because I was writing an email. Start over."

(keeps staring at screen) "Sorry, I'm heads down, but I want to talk to you -- let's do it when I'm done with this."

(glances over shoulder) "I have something I have to take care of, so I can't talk now. I'll holler when I'm done."

Just be honest, but close with something that suggests you're interested in talking with them later, just not now -- then get back to work. If they keep talking while you're working after that, just wait a few minutes, then say something like "You realize I'm still working on this and I haven't heard anything you've said, right?"

On the plus side: at least they like you!
posted by davejay at 9:51 PM on June 12, 2009

Oh, and if you have a REALLY pesky person who won't leave even when you ignore them, get a phone headset. When they come in, say "I have a conference call in a second, sorry, can't talk" then put it on, dial your company's conference call number, and listen to the lovely hold music while you work. Every so often take yourself off mute and say "Hey, it's [your name], I'm taking care of that. (pause) Okay, no problem." and then mute yourself. If this person STILL talks -- even when you're talking on the conference call -- you have every reason and right to stand up, walk up to them, and call them out on their bad behavior.
posted by davejay at 9:53 PM on June 12, 2009

Yes, wear headphones. Big, over ear, impossible to miss headphones. You don't even have to have music playing for them to be a very effective deterrent.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:07 PM on June 12, 2009

Maybe this is why I'm not good at office politics, but I have no qualms telling someone during work hours, "I'm sorry, I'm at work right now. Maybe we can get a beer at 5 and talk, but I have things to do" and then ignoring them from that point on.

Yes, I have told my work-avoiding coworkers, "I'm sorry, I'm at work and I'm busy." Just like I would someone calling on the telephone in the middle of the day. I usually only have to do it once.
posted by hippybear at 10:27 PM on June 12, 2009

"Do me a favour and close that door please...
uh, I meant from the other side" ;)
posted by dirm at 12:36 AM on June 13, 2009

You simply need to reciprocate the intrusions a few times and drop some hints to the offenders. Wait tell they are in the middle of something, and then chat them up to the point of distraction. When it looks like they can't possibly handle anymore, get up and walk away while talking about the work you need to take care of.

This is passive-agressive junk and you should not listen to it. Be polite and direct like others have suggested. It's your work, not your high school.

"Hey man, can I get you to hold that story for later? I'm right in the middle of stuff."

"Gotta get this (thing you're working on) done, can we chat later? Awesome, thanks. I really appreciate it."

"Don't mean to be rude, but I'm on a roll and this train can't be stopped! I was planning on taking a break at (time), wanna go with?"

I find when people make it known that they tend to take semi-predictable breaks, the (innocent) intrustion-distractions slow down. It just works out for everyone.
posted by Mikey-San at 3:15 AM on June 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe this is why I'm not good at office politics, but I have no qualms telling someone during work hours, "I'm sorry, I'm at work right now. Maybe we can get a beer at 5 and talk, but I have things to do" and then ignoring them from that point on.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, as long as you don't say it in a mean tone. It's exactly what the after-work beer was invented for! "I'm swamped right now, you wanna get a beer when we get out? Rock. Come snag me at (later time) and we'll see if anyone else wants to go, too."
posted by Mikey-San at 3:19 AM on June 13, 2009

Here is the correct solution:

"Bob! Just the man I was hoping to see! I could really use your help with this..."
posted by kindall at 6:25 AM on June 13, 2009

As soon as the offender takes a step towards your door, sheepishly call out, "Hey, you don't want to come in here! I've got gas!"
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:34 AM on June 13, 2009

one simple word: "airhorn"!
posted by reddot at 6:58 AM on June 13, 2009

Well, I always dealt with this by asking them to help me. Wait for that first pause - "Hey, while you're here, can you help me with this? I'm having trouble with the X file, and maybe you can see where my numbers went off base".

The other person would normally then help (great!) or suddenly remember a pressing appointment of their own,

Passive aggressive I guess, but it worked for me.
posted by bunnycup at 7:29 AM on June 13, 2009

In other words, what Kindall said.
posted by bunnycup at 7:30 AM on June 13, 2009

N'thing the various "Talk to you later, OK?" responses. As for the guest chair in your office, I'd suggest putting it somewhere else (hallway outside, conference room, etc). When a legitimate visitor arrives, drag the chair in - students can be told to drag the chair themselves, I'd think - and drag it out again after they leave. Or use it as auxiliary desk space, as sorta suggested above, but instead of some random pile of papers put stuff you're actually working with on it and park it right next to your own chair.

Moving the guest chair out of my own cubicle really cut down on annoying chit-chat sessions, but when the boss really needs to talk to me he drags a chair in with him (and he's clueful enough to drag it back out when he leaves).
posted by Quietgal at 8:52 AM on June 13, 2009

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