Workmates who ask questions all day
April 11, 2008 4:39 PM   Subscribe

What are some strategies to cope with direct reports that are in my immediate physical area and who pepper me with questions all day long?

I'm struggling with distractions at work and have given up on ever getting a personal space that I could use to somewhat control the physical interruptions. I'm stuck in a bullpen situation with three direct reports who are 2 feet, 4 feet, and 6 feet away. The imbalance of experience is such that these guys have to be able to use me as a resource. The problem is that the questions come at five-minute intervals all day long, and my own work (a lot of writing and strategy) is such that in order to be productive I have to be able to have long stretches of focus.

The only thing I can think of is to tell them to hold their questions until a set time every day, but that seems like kind of a crazy thing to ask. Has anyone been in a similar situation where that was the solution, and it didn't end up making the requestor look like an asshole and make everyone else feel really uncomfortable?

Oh, and wearing headphones has proven to be an almost comically useless technique. Nobody gets the hint.
posted by TheManChild2000 to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Designate certain team members as leads for certain tasks and the aggregates for specific lines of questioning. Other than that, well it's part of the job to some extent. Welcome to management! Often folks pepper you with questions if you've historically had a micro strategy for management and haven't let them run and stumble by themselves. I've found it more useful to let them fall down, try and pick themselves up and analyze down the road rather than direct them as extensions of myself. My field is technical in nature but involves a lot of organization and independent thought, it may not be applicable.
posted by iamabot at 4:44 PM on April 11, 2008

The only thing I can think of is to tell them to hold their questions until a set time every day, but that seems like kind of a crazy thing to ask.

No, that's not crazy. But here's an incremental alternative: When you start into a project, just tell them all you need an hour without interruptions in order to focus on your project. If anyone "forgets" and starts to interrupt, just tell them to write the question down so they don't forget, but to please wait until you are finished.

Also, wear your headphones during the hour. If you consistently do this, eventually they will equate the headphones with "do not disturb." But the reason they keep disturbing you now, is that you allow it.

Sounds like you want to be nice, which is fine. But you can be firm and nice. In similar situations, when I am interrupted while working on something else, I say something like, "I really want to focus on your question and give it the attention it deserves. But right now, I'm really focusing on this other project. Let me finish what I am doing, then I can focus on what you need without rushing you."
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:55 PM on April 11, 2008

Let your team know that you work best when you're heads-down on a project for longer periods of time, but you also recognize that they need your assistance on an ongoing basis, so you'd like to try a couple of methods to balance both needs.

After all, they report to you, you can be a crazy old coot if you want to be, but what you should *never* be is passive; that is, they should never *have* to "take the hint". You tell them what you expect of them, they do it, and everyone will be happy.

Recommended time management methods:

1. Schedule a 5-minute daily kickoff meeting and a post-lunch sync-up, in your cubicle so nobody gets comfy.

3. Set the expectation that if it's too urgent to wait for the scheduled meetings they can bother you, as their need for information always trumps your need to stay heads-down -- but that you appreciate them taking a moment to consider how urgent it is and selecting an appropriate means of asking you.

Also helpful: set up bugzilla with a queue just for questions, so that you can schedule, say, ten minutes per hour answering any new questions that have been asked.

Note that if you have multiple direct reports who require constant handholding, you probably need to delegate more of your non-management workload so that you can spend time doing that handholding -- it's very hard to balance both, as you know.
posted by davejay at 4:55 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going through this too, and struggling with being interrupted in mid-thought and thus acting super annoyed with people. My solution thus far has been to set a daily check-in time with each of my team members. They can save up their two-minute questions for a 15- or 30-minute block of uninterrupted time. It's not the same time every day because my schedule is unpredictable, but we look at the next day's calendar as we are wrapping up and set the time for the next day. This works for me because there are only two of them; not sure what I'd do if there were so many that I was spending all day in check-in meetings.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:56 PM on April 11, 2008

Maybe make sure they have an activity they can do if they get stuck waiting for information from you. This is in addition to a strategy that lets them ask questions of you at certain times. You can gauge the balance between long inter-question periods, that benefit your focused work, and more availability to your questioners, which could benefit their productivity.

This may be too silly, but you might consider a sign or an adjustable fake clock face to let them know when you'll next be available for questions. Since everybody's so close together, maybe some kind of visual cue -- which you tell them about so that they don't have to be psychic hint-getters -- would work for everyone.
posted by amtho at 5:04 PM on April 11, 2008

The best management advice I ever received was from a previous mentor. He told me that I would not make a manager unless I understood that one should not come to one's manager with problems unless one had a solution that the manager could expedite. Anything else was whining, which is distinctly unimpressive. Ideally one should have two or three solutions, with a preferred solution and a fall back. That advice has stood me in good stead in subsequent jobs and helped me to mentor my own people. Try this on yours ... :-)
Another part of the solution is to follow Sweetie Darling's advice on limiting interruptions to certain times. Try to set "office hours" and tell your reports that you expect them to show initiative if they expect a good evaluation at the end of the year. But an important part of this contract is that you give them sufficient guidance to work without your input. Spend at least part of your office hours planning the work in collaboration your reports. You could try to engage them as a group. Ask them what problems they face and ask the others what they would do about these problems. That way, they may well learn to ask each other, rather than you, when they have an immediate problem.
posted by sgmax at 5:09 PM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

I deal with this all the time too, and the advice above is stupendous, so I'll just add a couple details. We have a lot of turnover (three month internships), so I've gotten to experiment with this a lot.

It would be a huge help for you to rearrange your workspace. By far the worst case of this I've had was when I sat 2 feet from someone. But you said you can't, so okay.

Since it seems like people sometimes just need to talk something out, I try to formally get them to work together, either one "managing" another or with them paired.

I make sure they know the goal, not the next step (if at all possible). They could at least know the goal of the next four hours. Sometimes, I just tell them "do X," and then ten minutes later, they say, "I did X, now what?"

Regular check-ins would help. It's easiest to set please-don't-bother-me expectations right from the start, but now that it's not the start, it probably would be good to tell them you want to try something new.

And you could say, "so, let's see, what else will you need to know to do this?" For a while, I would write out step-by-step instructions. Half the time I wouldn't even give them the instructions, but it helped me think through everything they would need to know.

sgmax's first idea is great. I've also found that you have to take their advice a lot of the time for it to work. If you second-guess it too much, that teaches that they shouldn't bother.
posted by salvia at 9:22 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

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