This better be important
August 18, 2005 5:30 PM   Subscribe

Anyone have any experience with (or innovative solutions for) dealing with chronic workplace interruptions?

Hoo-eee! I work with a guy who —I shit you not— cannot go ten minutes without interrupting somebody, and it's usually me. He comes over to my cubicle and just parks, apparently oblivious to the fact that I might be in the middle of something. I don't know if he's just lonely or what, but it's making me crazy. The twist is that sometimes it's actually work-related and pertinent, and I often benefit from his expertise, but 95% of the time, it's him coming over and saying something like, "Uh, just as an FYI, you'll have trouble if you try to export from Lotus Notes into RTF" and then use that to segue into some other bullshit. It's truly boggling that someone would be either so desperate to talk to somebody, or so clueless to social cues!

I've recently begun forcing myself to not acknowledge him with eye contact during these interruptions, and that helps shorten the unwanted visits slightly, but not the frequency. I've also tried actively wrapping up the exchange with, "Well, good. Alright." and then turning around purposefully to my computer, but again, it's pretty useless. Yesterday, ten seconds into one of his visits, I got up, exited the cubicle and walked to the printer, and the mofo FOLLOWED ME.

I'm a code jockey, and I need to get in the zone in order to be any good, and every time I have to stop for some impertinent anecdote it costs me at least 20 minutes.

So I'm looking for a tactful and diplomatic, yet effective, way to communicate this need to this person. I'm not a terribly confident or assertive person, so whatever I say is going to require me to muster some courage.
posted by yalestar to Grab Bag (25 answers total)
Wear headphones. Whether there is music playing is up to you. If he can't interrupt you just by talking, he'll be less likely to interrupt.
posted by smackfu at 5:47 PM on August 18, 2005

I had a similar problem, with a fellow coworker.

Could you just gently tell him that his interruptions are distracting you, and to not bother you? Like, "I'm sorry, but I'm in the middle of a huge project, I can't be distracted." If that doesn't work, go to your lead to explain the situation to them.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:49 PM on August 18, 2005

I'm not sure how much help it will be if he's not taking some cues but I've found that the best way for me to deal with the people who chronically don't try to figure out something before asking me is to put them off for just a few minutes so they are stuck with some time to do it themselves. 9 times out of 10 I end up not having to do it at all. (Not that I'm not willing to help - I just am not willing to do what google would do in less time if they weren't so DAMN LAZY!)

Perhaps you can simply not look away from your monitor and say "Jim, right in the middle of a thought here - gimmie 5 minutes to get to a stopping point." If it's just some sort of short attention span theatre for him that might put that encounter off entirely.

Is your supervisor not of any use? Not as a "narc him out" thing but ... as I type this I realize I'm not sure how I'd couch it but perhaps you can think of a nice neutral way. Depending on how bad this is for you, perhaps even if it IS in a narc kinda way - at some point you have to look out for your own ability to get your job done and keep your bosses happy.

Beyond all that, ask yourself how you're the one getting most of this dude's attention. In addition to ending things abruptly perhaps you need to be less accessable or participate less in these interactions. If you're the most agreeable to talking with him that may be why you've caught the brunt of this.
posted by phearlez at 5:50 PM on August 18, 2005

Look pained, get up and go to the bathroom everytime he approaches. Or thirty seconds into his monologue.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:53 PM on August 18, 2005

Response by poster: The kindly headphones suggestion reminds me that I forgot to mention my struggles with that attempt!

I started wearing headphones several months ago, and he wouldn't give up! The guy is so persistent that he stood there knocking and repeating my name until I acknowledged him. I think he's under some delusion that he has Very Important Things To Say, but I can tell he's just uncomfortable unless he's talking to someone at all times.

Somewhat related (and please pardon me for using this as a venting forum), I've recently started a technique where whenever I hear him get up out of his chair (he's two cubes away), I pretend like I'm talking on the phone. It works, until I can feign a phone conversation no longer.

I've also begun taking my laptop and hiding in empty cubicles on the other side of the building, which works great, but I do need to occasionally be at my desk.

As to why I'm getting most of his attention, I couldn't say. I'm a pretty passive listener usually, but I've scissored that in my desperate attempt to get this taken care of.

The narc approach is looking more promising...
posted by yalestar at 6:04 PM on August 18, 2005
posted by mr.dan at 6:06 PM on August 18, 2005

Wear headphones. Whether there is music playing is up to you. If he can't interrupt you just by talking, he'll be less likely to interrupt.

Doesn't always work. I tried this a few times. Often people come up to you and start talking regardless. You can only ignore them for so long. Eventually you get so irritated you have to turn the music off and listen to them. People are idiotic like that.

I'd personally recommend using the hand and comment approach. Raise a hand, don't look at him, and say "I'm sorry, I'm totally swamped, I'll come over in 30 minutes or so." Then actually do so. Take the issue to his desk and on your schedule. This makes you look like a busy workaholic who's not trying to be rude, but simply has no time to waste.
posted by wackybrit at 6:08 PM on August 18, 2005

I've also begun taking my laptop and hiding in empty cubicles on the other side of the building, which works great, but I do need to occasionally be at my desk.

Yeah, that to me screams of future problems for you with your boss. This guys sounds like a sad case but his issues are not worth getting fired for. Dealing with the oddities of employees is what supervisors are paid for. If the "not right now - gimmie 30" doesn't work I don't think you should feel bad about approaching your/his manager.
posted by phearlez at 6:13 PM on August 18, 2005

Crazy techniques, subtleties, hiding, headphones, etc. are not going to work with this guy, and aren't real solutions (nor are they professional behavior, imo). He is someone who, for whatever reason, clearly doesn't pick up on (or simply disregards) clues/signals/etc. that aren't direct -- so be direct. That doesn't have to mean rude, but it does mean simply stating your boundaries: "Bob, I don't work well with a lot of distractions. I appreciate your professional input, though, so let's touch base once before lunch and once after lunch for a couple of minutes in case if there are relevant issues we need to discuss for work."

That way, you're not telling him just to get lost -- by your own admission, the conversations are often work-related (if tangential), and sometimes even helpful -- but rather setting an explicit boudary in terms of what an appropriate workplace interaction is. It allows him to continue to impart info in a way that makes him think he's helpful/experienced/whatever, and it allows you to be the recipient of that info without being driven up the wall.

If the chatting persists beyond necessary work-related info, simply wrap up the conversation clearly by saying "thanks for the feedback/heads-up/whatever. I've got to get back to work now." Then turn back to your computer and keep working. If he still keeps talking, repeat politely but firmly: "thank you, Bob. If I need anything else, I'll let you know."
posted by scody at 6:16 PM on August 18, 2005

"I'm sorry, I'm totally swamped, I'll come over in 30 minutes or so."

Just to second this because it definitely works for me. I had one of these folks at a previous job and it drove me insane. Even if I said, "You know, I'm in the middle of something and can't talk right now. But my schedule should look better around 3 pm." Yup, there they were...3 pm on the dot. It was better for me to promise to swing by because I could also leave their space. I also kept stacks of papers and books on the chairs in my office, which was a pain when there was someone I REALLY wanted to talk to. But it helped.

Eventually, I actually did have to use more directness and just say, "You know, I don't do well at work unless I can get into my zone interrupted. It's really hard for me to get the things done that I need to when I stop to chat a lot. Maybe we can schedule coffee once a week to catch up instead?" And then I did it. And it worked. I felt bad, but good because I was finally left alone.
posted by jeanmari at 6:22 PM on August 18, 2005

I've had that. Guy on the desk next to me was obsessed with UML. Woudn't shut up about about it. Not a bad person or anything, just... a monomaniac. I'd put on headphones in the middle of a conversation and he'd keep right on talking.

No, I never found a solution, I just tried to be nice to him and made my line manager aware that it was an issue - I figure that's what he was paid for.

UMLGuy moved on in the end because we didn't actually do UML. You can see how that would bother him.

Good luck. If it's mostly information he's trying to get over to you, maybe somebody could wean him onto email or IM or a wiki. I don't hold out much hope, though.
posted by Leon at 6:31 PM on August 18, 2005

How do I deal with the office dullard?
posted by alan at 6:50 PM on August 18, 2005

I have the exact same problem. My favorite is when the guy next to me is not at his desk and someone comes over and asks me "do you know where so and so is?" Uh, no, dipshit.

But anyway, I read in Peopleware that it takes 15 minutes to get in to "the Zone," and everytime you're interrupted the clock resets. Very annoying.

I've found the direct approach to be the best. When someone says "do you have a minute?" I say "no," and occasionally they keep jabbering anyway, but I'm pretty brutally honest when I need to be. Eventually they get the picture. I think any real adult would not take it personally.

I also second the isolation technique mentioned above. From time to time I find an empty cubicle or work from home.
posted by surferboy at 6:51 PM on August 18, 2005

This may seem terrible but the best thing might be to "Un-friend" this person.

He is clearly a pain in the ass and desperate for conversation and companionship. You're not getting paid enough for that.

Him: "Just as an FYI,.."

You, interrupting him, "Forgive me, but I can't talk now, I have work to do."

Repeat until he finds someone else to bother. It won't take long because he is desperate. So sad for him. And good luck to you!
posted by snsranch at 6:57 PM on August 18, 2005

Even though a lot of the "tricks" mentioned are clever, your dullard sounds fairly clueless, and probably won't understand the subtle hints.

I'll ditto what snsranch said. If the guy keeps coming by, give it to him straight - it may hurt, but he's got to learn.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:22 PM on August 18, 2005

If you feel the need to be particularly politic for some reason, you can also do the direct "It's not you, it's me" route. So, tell the guy you can't chat, in general not just in specific, as scody says. Feel free to also tell him any of the following

- you can't get any work done with constant interruptions and this is important because of blahblahblah
- you can't get any work done.... and you have anxiety about your job performance which is making your life difficult and blahblahblah
- you can't get any work done and your boss has been giving you a hard time and you are concerned blahblahblah

Sometimes with clueless work people you can make it seem like you and them are a team if you can both join together to help YOU get YOUR work done. If you think the person has a very hard time picking up clues in that "Well I know you said don't disturb you if it was important but I THINK this is important..." way, just make some sort of an obvious rule like "If I am wearing headphones, send me email instead of stopping by. If we need to talk, we can do it at lunch." You don't have to be a jerk about it but basically help the guy understand that your office behaviors are different than his. Alternately, every time he goes over to your cubicle, give him something to do.

Good luck. I had this problem at a short-term job I had and I found that I was preyed upon a lot by the office chatterbox because I was the only one who hadn't already told her to leave me alone. I finally just said "I can't talk to you at work any more." which was less than ideal but since she was all noise no signal, it was ultimately helpful.
posted by jessamyn at 8:04 PM on August 18, 2005

Ouch - when I write I need to get in the zone, too. It's unfortunate that you don't want to hurt this person's feelings and that they're actually useful sometimes.

With an office - it's easy; put up a notice CONFERENCE CALL - DO NOT DISTURB (or whatever else excuse) on the door, but in a cubical... not so much.

I've tried headphones and loud music - but people just stand there until I acknowledge them (yeah, I'm a wuss - but I'm a surly wuss so they only stand there and only ahem *cough* wheeze after a while). When I *can* take time out to solve other people's problems, I do - but that just lowers the bar as to whether a particular problem is sufficiently big enough for people to ask me to solve them.

The best that I've found, too, is "uh... just a moment... hey, can I get back to you later in the day/afternoon? Sorry - <someone-in-a-higher-position-than-both-of-you> just dumped a big ol' steaming pile of $&!^ on me this morning and expects it done <whenever>"
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:07 PM on August 18, 2005

When I was working on deadline, I'd just put a string across my cube entrance with a "Please Do Not Disturb" sign. If someone insisted on yapping at me anyway, I'd just keep my face toward the screen and, without looking up, point to the sign and say, "Can you e-mail me? Thanks."
posted by jrossi4r at 9:10 PM on August 18, 2005

Completely agree with scody - what's up with all the avoidance tactics: just tell the dude!

(I believe you're also permitted to smack him in the mouth for FYIing you... ;-)
posted by forallmankind at 9:44 PM on August 18, 2005

Be tactful with you office's Milton

Idea 1)
Mr dan has it with cubedoor.
Then, put on the outside a sign, in a large font: If door is closed, only disturb with a fire.
He'll come by, read it, and then, tactfully, you'll explain that you got the door because of all the interruptions (you will not single him out) which is making it difficult for you to get your milestones/objectives completed in a reasonable time. You'll then explain to him that he must know exactly what you're talking about as there is someone from a different department bothering you.

Idea 2) (my favorite)
Better yet, ask him if he has any ideas on how you can communicate to others about being disturbed too often as it's disturbing your coding. Again, try to involve him, as he has some level of experience/seniority, that he must have dealt with that sort of problem before. Whatever idea he gives you...USE it.
posted by filmgeek at 10:43 PM on August 18, 2005

I've dealt with this in a previous job and eventually I had to just stop answering, stop responding, stop even acknowledging people were standing at my desk.

Crazy how some people just don't "get" social cues. I hope that if I am ever that socially inept someone would smack me in the face and say "dude. I'm trying to work."
posted by menace303 at 11:11 PM on August 18, 2005

A copy editor I worked with in an open newsroom had the same problem. She finally explained to the entire work group that she needed long blocks uninterrupted, and to indicate when those were, she'd wear a baseball cap. When hat was on, do not bother her unless the building was on fire. It worked.
posted by GaelFC at 11:33 PM on August 18, 2005

I read a recent blog entry where some guy said he opens his mouth and looks at them and does a slow clap.

But that's not very tactful and diplomatic, is it?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:59 PM on August 18, 2005

I like GaelFC's solution, in that it doesn't single out the dullard -- but at the same time lets management know that you're not some hothouse flower that needs things to be perfect (because it'll probably be obvious to everyone else what you're talking about). I'm not a fan of saying "I can't get work done if..." -- people have an awful habit of thinking that this is a personality trait and not a result of circumstance -- the "fundamental attribution error".

And yes, what is it about people who talk to you while you have headphones on?!
posted by dreamsign at 12:53 AM on August 19, 2005

I've seen suggestions elsewhere which are similar to the headphones idea, but are more obvious.

One revolves around having an object which is associated with being busy, which others can see - for example, a hat, or a flag, or a soft toy on top of your monitor.
When you don't want to be disturbed, you put the object in view - obviously ensuring that your colleagues understand what it means - and take it down when you can be approached.

An alternative is to physically schedule in some less-busy socialising time; for example, "unless you urgently need to talk to me, please only do so during the first 15 minutes of each hour"

Another alternative instead of being confrontational, how about the passive-aggressive approach... when he appears, make a really vexed growl at the back of your throat, roll your eyes, sigh meaningfully...

As has been said already, though - the best (and easiest after the first couple of times) is to just say "Whoa there, I'm busy; can't talk now".

Finally, you could just flip out like a ninja... heh!
posted by Chunder at 1:42 AM on August 19, 2005

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