when a coworker constantly interrupts you in-person instead of emailing or calling

by Alison Green on March 6, 2013

A reader writes:

I’ve run into an interesting question about a coworker’s communication habits. She works in a building across the street from my building, but has frequent interactions with employees in my building. The structure of her position is such that she needs to get information or make requests of people in my department and other nearby offices on a daily basis. Her preferred method to do this is not just to email or pick up the phone, but to walk across the street and speak in person. This typically happens 5-10 times per week, sometimes multiple times per day.

I wouldn’t think much of this (I might even applaud it) except that the underlying tone of her visits suggests that she thinks she will get faster results by coming by in person. I get the impression that she likes to put people “on the spot,” doesn’t trust others to do their jobs, and wants to come over to make sure that the things she needs are happening immediately. She has interrupted discussions with coworkers and my boss, and has commented when coworkers are out of the office or not available. Her position and mine are a similar levels.

Building relationships across an organization through personal interactions is undeniably a good thing. However, I think this person is actually making enemies with the frequency of her visits by communicating a lack of trust, and forcing coworkers to drop everything to attend to her requests. Her visits are pretty much all business. However, I suppose they are effective in that she gets a quick response. What do you think? Am I just over-thinking this behavior?

Ooooh, that’s annoying.

The principle to keep in mind here is that people will continue to repeat a behavior if it gets them the results they want. So you need to show her that this isn’t the fastest way to get things from you.

The way to do that is to decline to comply with her demands that you deal with her right now, this minute. When she shows up in person, say, “I’m actually on deadline right now and can’t talk, but if you send me an email with what you need, I should be able to get to it later today.” (Or tomorrow, or whatever’s reasonable.) Say it pleasantly, but say it and be firm.

If she pushes back with something like, “I just need a minute,” don’t give in. Say something like, “Sorry, but I can’t break my train of thought right now; I’m right in the middle of writing something. Send me an email, though, and I’d be glad to help.” And then turn back to whatever you were doing and continue doing it.

And if she interrupts a conversation that you’re having with other people, don’t let it happen. When she breaks in, say, “We’re actually in the middle of a meeting (or talking something through, or whatever), but I can call you later today.”

And frankly, if you’re moved to, you can also just tell her point-blank the best way to communicate with you: “I’m often focusing on a particular project, so unless something is urgent, it’s better to email me, or if it’s better suited to a discussion, to schedule a time to talk.” If you feel like being a good samaritan, you could also add, “That’s actually the case for most of us over here.” (If indeed it’s true of your department.)

Speaking of which, when she complains about people being unavailable when she shows up, you should cheerfully respond, “Jane is generally really busy. If you need to talk to her, it’s usually best to email or schedule a meeting. If you show up unannounced, she may be in the middle of something else.”

Overall, the point here is that just because she’s showing up and asking for something, you don’t need to give it to her that very second. You’re the manager of your own time, and you’re entitled to make decisions about what the most important use of your time is at that particular moment. (Obviously, don’t do this if your job requires something different to or if she’s well above you in the hierarchy — but neither of these sounds like the case here.)

I should also note that you don’t have to be 100% rigid about it. For the sake of being nice, you can occasionally allow one of these interruptions — but you should at least refuse more of them than you allow, because she’s shown that she won’t respect your time on her own and therefore needs boundaries demonstrated.

Sadly, this is often the way you have to deal with people who don’t respect normal boundaries. If someone is a normal, polite person, there’s no problem with letting them sometimes inconvenience you — because you know they won’t learn the wrong lesson from it. But when someone inconveniences you all the time, you need to take a firmer stand. These are the people for whom the saying “give an inch, take a mile” was invented.

Stop letting her have the inch. She’s forfeited her claim to it.

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{ 120 comments… read them below or add one }

btdubbs March 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for this! I have had a similar issue with various coworkers over the years. Would you change your advice at all in handling this if the person was your supervisor and had a habit of popping in your office to repeat information he just sent you in an email (often beating the speed of the sent email)?

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Yes! If it’s your manager, you pretty much need to put up with it. You can try retraining them, by saying things like “Yes, just got your email, I’m on it!” … but if it doesn’t work, this is their prerogative as your manager, sadly.

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Mimi March 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Bonus points if you use the phrase, “I’m right on top of that, Rose!”

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btdubbs March 6, 2013 at 3:54 pm

hah that is always my default facebook status when i’m feeling particularly stressed at work.

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Min March 6, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I wonder if Sue Ellen ever had Imposter Syndrome?

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Lisa March 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm

You just made my night!!! Now to pop that movie in…

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V March 7, 2013 at 11:04 am

In retrospect, I learned a lot about office culture from that movie.

Also, I never tire of saying “the dishes are done, man” after washing a sink full of them.

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Jane March 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I had a boss who worked from home on Fridays and would also send an IM when he was CCed on an email to me as if they were all high priority. It was frustrating, but I dealt with it by responding that I saw the email but I was currently addressing an earlier email which appeared to be higher priority and asked if I should change priorities. He would realize after the fourth or fifth time that what he was doing was ridiculous and toned it down. But, on the occasion where I needed to change focus, it was good to have that direction from above.

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Runon March 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Org culture is also worth taking into account here. If it is very common to do this then you may need to shift a bit to handle this. It doesn’t sound like that is the case.

You have to train her to not do it. As much as it might be difficult. I’d try to bump up her requests that come thru the correct channel (and I wouldn’t say call or email, pick one, whichever is your favorite, and use that every time) so she learns that when you do this you get something good. When she stops by in person tell her that you just got a new request in via email that is ahead of her (and the 10 other requests too). I have to work these items in the order they were received I will get to yours when it comes up in the list.

Please, please, stop greasing the squeaky wheel.

And if at some point she does get like 5 requests in a row in via email, bake her some cookies and walk them over, saying you greatly appreciate getting them that way and it helps improve your speed, accuracy, and focus.

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Josh S March 6, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Ah, classical conditioning!

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KellyK March 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Operant conditioning, actually. Classical has more to do with involuntary/emotional responses (think Pavlov’s dog) while operant is about learning that a given behavior produces a certain result.

But either way, I totally agree with Runon about training people. If someone is doing something that causes problems for you, but it works for them, the quickest way to stop it is to stop rewarding it.

I personally would avoid baking the cookies, because people don’t necessarily *appreciate* knowing that you’re training them in much the same way you’d teach a puppy not to pee on the floor, and an over-the-top reward might give that impression. Just thank her and make sure to get her the result she wants when she uses the method you want.

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The gold digger March 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Has anyone ever resented cookies for that reason?

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:01 am

I would resent the *idea* that I was being trained like an errant puppy, but I would probably still eat the cookies.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:06 am

I should add that giving me cookies for doing you a big favor, even if it’s just as much a training tool, doesn’t come across that way. I would feel weird about it simply because it was over-the-top praise just for doing things that I’m supposed to be doing.

And as someone who fosters dogs and reads training books and blogs all the time, I’m frequently thinking about training “stuff,” so I’m probably more likely to notice that someone is training me than someone who isn’t in that mindset.

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Scott M March 7, 2013 at 11:58 am

Reminds me of the 1962 movie “If a Man Answers” where the mother-in-law teaches her daughter to train her new husband using a dog-training book! It’s hilarious, but I imagine would be surprisingly effective in real life.

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Josh S March 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Dangit! Undergrad psychology class FAIL. (Somehow I got a 100% in Learning & Motivation Psych…but I remember almost none of it now. Irony, right?)

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Runon March 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm

It can be really useful! Cookies when you are good. Slow work when you are bad. Happy cheerful me when you follow the right path. Snappy me when you don’t.

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Jamie March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I love this. I’d work with you in a second.

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Christina March 6, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Why not treat your employees like humans and TELL them about their good/bad behavior instead of conditioning them? If anyone steps back and thinks about it for a second, they will be mad that you are treating them like you would a pet.

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Runon March 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm

I do tell them. The first 10 times or so. But after that you have to take a different method. If you won’t listen when I ask that you please send me something in email (in my case, thru the online form designed to get a quicker response) I’m not going to do your item faster because you show up at my desk or worse call me and bug me. And I will tell you that I appreciate you doing it the right way and that I’m showing my appreciation with a cookie and a quick response and a thanks.
(And for me these are all coworkers rather than employees which may be slightly different.)

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Meh March 6, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I have to say, giant who-cares in response to your comment about people being upset because they are treated like a pet. I would say that not respecting social boundaries is equivalent to spike jumping on the couch when you don’t want him to. My point is that if these people are going to act like pets then you have an obligation to treat them as such.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:04 am

The thing is, everything you do when you interact with people is training them, because that’s how learning works. If you say “Please do X and not Y,” but Y gets them the result they want, then they’ve just learned to keep doing Y.

Yes, you should absolutely talk to them, but you still have to back up your words accordingly.

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KarenT March 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Gah, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I don’t understand why people think that kind of imposition is okay. I get it for urgent things, things that are better clarified in person, or quick questions, but it can be really distracting to have people come over and interrupt you whenever they feel like it.
And crossing the street every time she has a question doesn’t make her sound terribly productive. I agree fully with Alison’s advice. The only way to shut it down is to ask her to stop the drop-ins. I’d tell her to call first so you can arrange a mutually agreeable time. This is how I usually shut it down:
Annoying co-worker: I’d like to get your thoughts on A, B, and C.
Me: Sounds great! Can you come back Friday at 11?

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Jamie March 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

I was thinking the same thing – sounds petty but it doesn’t sound like all this walking around is a good use of her time. I’m wondering if that’s the main point for her – to get out of her office and any excuse works…so you guys just bear the burden of being her escape.

Just supposition.

Respond quickly when she goes through proper channels and don’t acquiesce when she tries to hijack your attention on her whim.

And develop the face. Apparently I have this particular expression when I’m deeply engrossed in work that makes people think a couple of times before breaking into my train of thought. Oddly enough it’s the same expression I get when I have a migraine – but developing one of these will come in very handy.

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Mimi March 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm

George Costanza perfected that expression.

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Anon March 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Part of it might just be that she recently came from a company where face-to-face was vastly favored over other kinds of communication, or where electronic/phone requests were routinely ignored.

For example, Jane spent the first five years of her career in a small chocolate teapot-painting shop where you saw everyone face-to-face regularly. Because they always had chocolate and paint on their hands, no one was that good about checking e-mail, and didn’t always have paper to hand to write down notes when answering their own phones. Now she’s been employed by the orders department of a huge chocolate teapot factory, where e-mail and phone are the best methods to get requests put in. It might not be at all intuitive for her that suddenly e-mail actually works to get things done.

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Anon March 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm

That was just supposed to be a general response to the post, not sure why that showed up as a response to KarenT’s comment. Sorry.

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SJ March 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm

My coworkers do this all the time…except they shout back and forth across the room. It’s so fucking obnoxious I end up cursing on this blog about it. We do office work in a warehouse building (not being used as a warehouse), it’s totally unsuited to seated work and I blame the high ceilings for my coworkers thinking it’s acceptable to shout. Also because they’re idiots.

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Jen in RO March 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm

It took my pushy coworker a year or more, but she seems to have understood that dropping by someone’s desk is not a good strategy for getting answers. I wouldn’t normally care, but it’s impacting all my team. People in the company aren’t usually eager to help us, and becoming known as the annoying ones will not help one bit.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Man, you guys are a bunch of Scrooges. Don’t you like to get up and actually see the people you work with every now and then. This is how lots of jobs operate in big companies. If you don’t want people to come see you close your office door or come in when nobody’s there.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Closing your door means that you’ll fend off people whose interruptions would be reasonable — like people with something important and time-sensitive. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to be repeatedly interrupted by someone who could use email for all of it. If you have a job that requires deep focus, the second type of interruption is really annoying when it happens constantly.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Sure the line moves for different types of jobs, but dealing with this type of thing is pretty much par for the course for most jobs. And the op doesn’t mention what or who the report is for. Since the info sounds like its part of a larger report I assume its for someone higher up the food chain.

And if you really want to train her I think it would be better to respond to her email request immediately with a “I’ve got a few things I’m working on. Can I get it to you by x?” I just think its a little naive to start treating the interruptions and requests as a lower priority unless you’re absolutely sure.

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Dan March 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I was thinking the same thing. It seems to be a corporate culture thing. At my last two jobs, everybody did the drop-in. At my current job, everybody does email. I had to get used to it and it seemed so much slower, but now I do everything through email.

When in Rome…

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I’m just getting a vibe that the op is pushing back solely because he resents the interruption and not because his work is truly a higher priority.

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The gold digger March 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm

So? If you resent the interruptions, isn’t that enough?

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Dan March 6, 2013 at 6:52 pm

No, it’s not. I resent having to come in here every day in order to get paid. Yet, I still have to do it.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Okay, but that’s not the same thing. If the OP’s manager doesn’t require her to drop everything and respond to anyone who shows up her desk, she can choose to manage her time differently.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Absolutely not. If she’s putting together a report for an executive you don’t want to be the one that’s holding up the report. In the grand scheme of things its foolish to be that selfish. If someone is working on something that’s more important by definition their work is the priority, not yours.

Doing it purely bc of resentment gets you labeled as grumpy or not a team player.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:13 am

It’s not just what’s more important, but what the deadline is. If Wakeen needs February’s chocolate inventory for an important executive report by the end of the day, it’s still rude of him to go to Jane’s desk at 10:00 AM, interrupt a conversation, and insist that she look up the numbers while he’s standing there. (It might be necessary if she’s blown him off before, but it shouldn’t be automatic.)

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Jessa March 7, 2013 at 11:21 am

And if her interruption is preventing me from putting together another report needed by that same or different manager, why should I get penalised for missing MY deadline because she keeps interrupting me with something I could drop back to her in an email in a second.

The OP’s point is not that getting the information to the co-worker is an issue, it’s that it’s always an interruption. Of the OP’s work, of other people’s work. Not a timed one either as in the co-worker comes in at 8am each day and gets the data. And likely not a quick one. Because I guarantee there’s chatting and other things and waiting for whoever to rustle up the answers needed. Instead of being able to do it within their normal work flow.

And if there’s a genuine need to come across and get information, then someone needs to have a meeting and work out how to do this without disrupting everyone else’s work. Because interrupting co-worker isn’t the only one who has to do a job. And taking multiple chunks out of other people’s days is not a good use of time.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:09 am

Even if the tasks are of equal priority, interrupting your train of thought makes you less productive, especially if it’s a problem-solving task that requires a lot of concentration.

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jennie March 6, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Not everybody has a door to close.

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JessA March 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I would be tempted to get crowd control ropes, like what they have outside of night clubs, inside banks, etc; and barricade my cubicle off with it. :-P (Although, I would never have the guts to follow through with it.)

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Marigold March 6, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I had a co-worker do this police tape. It ended up getting him MORE attention, so he wasn’t happy with it.

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Just a Reader March 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm

It’s not being a Scrooge to want someone to respect your time. In person interaction is great from time to time or when something is really urgent–not as the go-to mechanism for instant gratification. That’s rude and disruptive.

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KellyK March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Totally agree. Interrupting someone also assumes that whatever you need from them is more important than whatever they were working on. If you know that, because you’re their boss or because your thing truly is urgent, that’s different.

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K March 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I think it depends on the job, to be honest. In some jobs and some offices, in-person (or phone – same effect of interrupting the person) is the default because you’re working on a collaborative project that needs constant check-ins on small parts throughout the day to make sure people are at the same place. And that’s fine. It makes sense that, with people switching jobs and offices, that there’s going to be mismatches and people – like this co-worker – will have to learn how things are done in the place they’re working. But I don’t think it makes sense to make normative statements; one way of interaction isn’t and shouldn’t be the default everywhere.

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K March 6, 2013 at 4:17 pm

(And I note that personally – I seek out the kind of job where you are checking in with people in person throughout the day for quick conversations about what you’re working on; I think the work product we produce is ultimately better for the type of work I do. So this isn’t just an issue of only lazy people who are avoiding work prefer to handle things in person.)

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Ellie H. March 6, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Yes – and I’ll add that I do have that kind of job, and that kind of project, and we all work just feet (mostly no doors) from each other, so we do do those constant small check-ins. I also, personally, fall slightly in the camp of phone/in-person rather than over email. However, my coworker who does something similar to this is just so over the top in terms of frequency of contact and level of unimportance of information conveyed, that even taking the above into consideration, it’s still problematic.

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K March 6, 2013 at 5:08 pm

That’s true. 5-10 times per week would be normal for my office, but there are certainly frequencies that wouldn’t be – or duration of visits that wouldn’t be (5-10 long visits a week could well be a problem).

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Jessa March 7, 2013 at 11:24 am

And if you’re on that kind of project, you’ve obviously already made interpersonal agreements on how you effectively manage those check ins so as not to disrupt everyone’s work. They may not be official but I bet people on the team know when Sam is on the phone to wait, or when Jean has got the draughting supplies on his or her desk it’s a bad time to ask. Or if you stop by and get the “wait hand,” or the “one minute finger raised up,” you don’t interrupt right then.

OP’s co-worker seems to be just blustering in without any thought for what they’re interrupting. Or courtesy either. Barging into meetings, etc.

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Anonymous March 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I don’t really see anyone saying that in-person conversations are bad. Many times I prefer to talk to someone in-person when the topic at hand is best suited for that format, for example something that isn’t incredibly straightforward and could be misconstrued through text. However, I ask the other party if they have time for a quick chat or if I do stop by impromptu and they look like they’re busy, I don’t disrupt them unless it’s a legitimate urgent issue. Unless OP’s coworker always has a Super Urgent Problem OMG – which I doubt – it’s disrespectful behavior.

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Jessa March 7, 2013 at 11:25 am

This, thank you.

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Dana March 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm

You’re assuming everyone has an office door to close or the luxury of choosing their own schedule.

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Jane March 6, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Clearly, you don’t work in operations or admin capacity ;)

Honestly though, it really depends on the culture – in some instances, you have to talk in person because nothing will get done. I’ve seen it in a start-up where you may need to act quickly. But I’ve also seen it in places where there’s no processes in place to get things done.

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Jamie March 6, 2013 at 3:28 pm

There is a happy medium between never wanting to see anyone even now and then and dropping everything to be at the beck and call of someone who consistently chooses drive-bys over going through proper communication channels.

It’s not an either or thing – and Alison is right…shutting my door blocks out legitimate drop ins and it fosters a perception of unavailability that isn’t true – but being available doesn’t mean doing nothing waiting for someone to show up and give you something to do.

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Snow March 6, 2013 at 4:18 pm

I’m at work to work, and god knows I’m busy so there’s very little time for hanging out or any interruptions… And I prefer my job gets done rather than having unnecessary chitchat with a coworker.

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Chinook March 6, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Doesn’t that imply you have doors to close?

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The gold digger March 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I miss having a door.

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Rana March 6, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Not everyone has a door.

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Rana March 6, 2013 at 9:06 pm

…and not everyone views chit-chat the same way. I’m fairly sociable, so don’t usually mind when people stop by if work is slow, but if it is not, I do not need the interruptions. Also, email has the advantage of having a written paper trail, and allows me the chance to gather my thoughts, collect the necessary documents, etc. Barging into my office to demand a response Right Now! while I’m in the middle of something is not going to make me happy.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm

She isn’t stopping by to chit chat with the op. It’s all business. Getting shit done is more important than inconveniencing you with interruptions.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Yes, but her shit isn’t necessarily more important than what the OP is working on when she happens to stop by. Maybe it is — but the OP should be the one figuring that out.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Yep. What really matters is which task is a priority in the grand scheme of things. Everything else is secondary.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Totally agree with that. My sense from the letter is that the coworker comes over for any and all things, not just high-priority ones, but maybe I’m wrong. OP, please chime in and set us all straight!

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Anonymous March 7, 2013 at 1:41 am

I’m not getting that at all. I’m getting that the coworker has a legitimate need for info to do her job.

I’ve seen this in several organizations where the org decides their priorities are higher than the programs priorities. Other groups needs are abandoned because the organization puts their own priorities first. In a perfect world, program management would come down on them for their self-serving attitude. And they do, but then the org goes right back to the old behavior.

OP, I have to ask – does your group know what data your coworker needs and when she needs it? Then just provide it to her! Sit down with the coworker and come up with a schedule/format/method to get the data to her. Then have your group exercise the discipline to actually provide that data to a shared data repository. Make sure the data is out there when she needs it. No more need for her to come over.

The OP March 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Absolutely – any and all things.

Lanya March 7, 2013 at 8:46 am

Some people are not lucky enough to have doors…and can’t close them against the in-person interruptions they get all day long.

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Sallie B. March 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Something to consider – are you sure she’s not acting under orders from her manager to handle things this way? I’ve been in a similar position, where my manager would send me to get something, and told not to come back without it.

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Lily in NYC March 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Alison’s advice is also applicable for nosy mothers-in-law!

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EngineerGirl March 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm

The structure of her position is such that she needs to get information or make requests of people in my department and other nearby offices on a daily basis

So she needs the information. Are your people providing it in a timely manner, or are they just in the habit of passive/agressive ignoring it?

I’ve been the person that showed up in the cubicle. It is usually because multiple e-mail requests for info were ignored, as well as meeting requests and IM requests. I’m wondering if this so-called “rude” coworker isn’t acting this way because it is the only way to get the information she needs? The OP didn’t mention anything about their response rate to e-mail meeting requests. If her group isn’t responding then that is an issue.

Having someone show up at your desk may be the penalty for ignoring legitimate requests for information.

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Ann O'Nemity March 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm

+1

I often need to get information from co-workers and almost all of them respond to email. One person, however, will only respond if I camp out at their desk and wait for the information. I don’t like it, but it works.

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jill March 6, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I think this is right – and actually, even if it’s NOT the case that this is a last-ditch effort to get info after other avenues haven’t worked, it definitely makes sense for the OP to look across her team to see if there are any patterns to the requests. If there were a consistent flow of frequently-requested information, that could cut down on the coworker’s visits, or at least help with the brush off (“As always, that information will be processed and run on Tuesday.”)

Obviously the processes have to align to the need, too (e.g. if the coworker needs to use the info on Wednesday, maybe Tuesday isn’t soon enough to get it).

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A Bug! March 6, 2013 at 4:58 pm

It’s possible that this is the case; I’ve been in that situation before and it’s pretty frustrating. But I’ve also been on the writer’s side, and that’s equally frustrating. From the letter I’m not able to decide which it is.

That said, if this coworker is finding herself having to come across in person 5-10 times a week because it’s the only way to get reliable results, then the coworker needs to be addressing this through alternate channels, because it’s a terrible use of her time to have to be doing this so regularly.

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aname March 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Its very possible that this *was* the only way to get stuff out of a couple of people and its been rolled out by her to everyone she deals with in error.

I have people like that who fail to realise that I don’t work the same way as X down the hall and (for example) shouting at me will get you nowhere. However they’ve got themselves thinking that is the only way you get results and can’t get out of that groove.

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Maria March 6, 2013 at 5:55 pm

THIS! I often have to go ask in person if they’re close enough because people in my organization are terrible about email. I got one response to a timely matter 2 weeks after the deadline! Really annoying but I guess it’s the culture because everyone seems to be fairly lax about it. When I worked in law firms people were almost always very prompt with email.

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Malissa March 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I am a person who has used the tactic of visiting another person to get results when all else fails. In my case it’s a 1.5 mile drive to go visit and I don’t like doing it. But there are times when I’ve done it.
To not have a person do it, the first thing is to make sure that if they are using the proper channels that you are communicating back to them. It could be as simple as I don’t have time to work on this today but I can on Tuesday. Then work on it on Tuesday and let them know.
When I get to the point that I am going to see somebody in person it is often because I can’t do my job until they do the thing I requested of them by email last week that they promised me they would have it done on Friday. Now it’s Wednesday and I’ve run out of other things to do. Now I’m going to be your problem until you do it. But I do work in a highly bureaucratic place. And I only use this tactic about 2 times per year.
Now if this isn’t the case and your visitor just likes to show up. Tell her that you will look at the email and get back to her on it. Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary.

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Nicholas Sterling March 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm

For those in open cubicles, perhaps a sign suspended by strings across the entry saying “Please don’t interrupt me! I’m trying to concentrate. I will be here and available at ___.” Write in a time no more than 2 hours off. If you stick to the same schedule every day, people will “just know.” You can even put a small greaseboard with “PLEASE COME SEE ME” across the top and space below where visitors can put their names. And then, of course, make it work for them — don’t ignore them.

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ANON March 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Whats funny is that I remember reading something on here not too long ago about the whole thing with telecommuting. Man people were commenting that when their co-workers aren’t there, it makes their job so much more difficult because they can’t just go over and ask them a question. Now all of these people are mad when its done too much.

Personally, I think it really depends on many factors. Has she tried emailing and not gotten responses fast enough? I know I’m in a position where I deal with customers, and often can’t do my job until other people get me information. So yeah, if I have a customer bugging me because someone in sales or marketing didn’t get me the info I need, then I have no problem going to that persons desk because they are now making my job more difficult.

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CL March 6, 2013 at 3:50 pm

It sounds like this person has had problems with no responses in the past. I understand that this behavior is annoying, but I have employed it myself if the person in question never, ever responds to messages. (I’m talking about zero responses to one-question easy emails.) If the annoying coworker gets positive reinforcement because the work is done when the coworker walks across the street, you do need to take AAM’s advice and put it off so there’s no instant gratification involved. It would probably be helpful to say “this will be done by tomorrow at the latest” for anything that she sends to you – in person, via email, or by phone. The person might just be afraid that you will never do anything based on past bad experiences.

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Shackleford Hurtmore March 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Longer term, you also need to train these people by setting a good example.

Over the years, I’ve managed to train quite a few co-workers to begin conversations with the phrase “Is now a good time to talk? I was hoping to talk about X for 5 minutes.” Just by using the same method when asking for information from them. And being willing to come back later if they say no, or even hesitate.

But with Alison on the “don’t give an inch” here. You need to retrain this puppy with tough love.

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kristinyc March 6, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Alison –
What would you suggest (for the person who keeps interrupting) for getting a response if email and phone calls aren’t working that wouldn’t be intrusive? There are a few people I work with who notoriously don’t respond to emails (because they have hundreds in their inbox). I’d much rather let people respond to me at their leisure, but sometimes “their leisure” ends up being 2 weeks.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Address it head-on: “I know you’re busy. What’s the best way for me to get information from you when I need it for something I’m working on?” Then try what they say. If that doesn’t work, you go back to them: “I tried X, but I’m having trouble getting what I need from you by the time I need it. Is there something I could be doing differently?” If that doesn’t work, then you talk to your or their manager about it.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I notice you aren’t advising the squeaky wheel tactic. Is that because you think its more effective to tell your boss to talk to the other boss to tell the employee?

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm

It’s because once you’ve told someone several times that you’re having trouble getting the responses you need from them and it’s still not changing, at that point someone above them needs to be involved.

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Joey March 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I agree. And some managers take care of it. But, lots say something once then start thinking the complainer is well a complainer. A lot of times you just can’t get stuff done unless you bug people. There’s just so so many workplaces where literally everything is a priority so you end up greasing the squeaky wheels that are the loudest first.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Yeah, I’m assuming a reasonably functional workplace. If that’s not the case, all bets are off.

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Anonymous March 6, 2013 at 5:13 pm

In my case doing one of two things gets a response faster than lightning: Copying in Management or asking for a read receipt. Of course the answer I get is usually rude and annoyed but when its the third such request….

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Hmm March 6, 2013 at 4:59 pm

I have a customer that will email me a drawn out response, then call me 2 minutes later and say the exact same thing. Always. But he’s a customer and otherwise is one of my more pleasant ones, so I deal. :)

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Lulula March 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm

I’ve been on both sides of this one, unfortunately – as an admin, particularly one with a desk like a receptionist, I was constantly getting in-person questions, and if I was in the middle of something I found it both annoying and rude, the assumption that I didn’t have any REAL work going on that might take precedence. I’m also a person that likes an email trail, mostly just to keep track of what I’m working on and the actual communications vs my memory of them, so not a fan of verbal requests in general.

Because of this, I’m generally the one who will NOT show up at your desk unless I’m already in the vicinity or am on a deadline and have tried contacting you in other ways and not heard back. And I will apologize profusely for having to make a personal appearance to interrupt and hassle you about something which you may not have seen because you are so busy and I know I’m being a pain in the neck by emailing AND showing up, but my boss is on my case/I have to get this in/the office is about to close… So I would take someone appearing regularly in person as a sign that they were either used to nothing happening any other way, or that I wasn’t understanding the urgency of their requests (unless it was a friend who also wanted a bit of a chat). As long as you know that you’re not obviously dropping the ball (which it sounds unlikely that you’re ALL doing), I think the only way to curb this is by making it clear that that it’s not a good time to talk, and then being responsive and detailed in your replies, even if that means saying via email “I’m swamped right now, so can get you this by x time, but do let me know what your deadline is”. Perhaps she doesn’t trust that she’ll ever get prioritized if she’s not right in front of you, so making it clear you understand she has timelines too could help her chill out a bit…

I also agree with jill above in that if there are processes involved where certain things get done on certain days, perhaps the timing isn’t meeting current needs for everyone and needs to be revisited. I have seen that happen before, where one group’s system shifts and throws everything else out of alignment, so may want to see if that applies here. I’m trying hard to find legitimate angles here(!), as otherwise it really is just obnoxious to have someone thinking theirs is always the highest priority request for your time.

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Not So NewReader March 6, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I am puzzled because I am wondering why this woman does this on a regular basis, when it is obviously annoying to others and when the company culture does not “approve”.
I would have to directly ask her. I would probably say something to the effect of “Wow, this makes a lot of work for you to have to come over here and ask me these questions every week. Is this stuff urgent and I don’t realize?”
Depending on her reply I would come up with various answers. “Every Monday I will make sure you have X information in your email.” Or “Because of the intensity of my projects, it is easier for me if you email. And you will have the answers you need in a reasonable time.”
Be sure to keep pointing out how much this would benefit her. “You probably lose a lot of valuable time hunting down all of us.” If the conversation goes well you can encourage her that others might be interested in handling the questions in the same manner.

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Rana March 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Maybe she’s trying to get in her walking miles each week.

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Dan March 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Sometimes a 5 minute conversation in person will save 50 emails over 5 days.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Sure, but what we’re talking about here is a rude coworker who interrupts conversations and complains when people aren’t available when she shows up announced.

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Dan March 6, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Agreed

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SW March 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

+1.

It’s really inconsiderate.

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businesslady March 7, 2013 at 9:07 am

as a corollary to that, I think any complaints about so-&-so not being around should be met with a look of concern &, “oh dear–did you have a meeting scheduled with them?” as a way of pointing out that a) they might be at another meeting & b) scheduling things with someone is the best way to non-intrusively lay claim to their time.

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KarenT March 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I don’t think anyone is saying there is no place for in person contact but that constantly dropping in is presumptuous. I have no problem with people dropping by with questions, urgent issues, or whatever, but someone swinging by every time we need to interact is disrespectful of my time. The fact that this woman is crossing a street for her pop-ins makes it weirder.

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KarenT March 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Sorry–I meant that as a reply to Dan :)

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Anon March 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Not to sound incredibly lazy here, but it puzzles me why someone would go through all that trouble of walking across the street, going down the stairs, waiting for the crosswalk light and yeah….

But back to the main point: to answer your question, I think there’s always more than one way to look at the picture and it’s worthwhile to give someone the benefit of the doubt, rather than presuming you know what their intentions are without even taking the time to ask them.

In this case, you say that you think it’s because she likes to people on the spot and needs to make sure things happen immediately. While I do think it’s odd she would go through the trouble of going across the street to make things happen, it’s also possible she may just be the type of personality who prefers direct personal communication, without any intention of putting you on the spot. I also think it’s possible that if someone is really swamped and having a hard time staying on top of things, they may react defensively to someone asking a question that’s not loaded or intended to put them on the spot.

For myself, I know this may just be my own eccentricity or old-fashionedness, but I prefer direct personal communication with people. I always think about the telephone and e-mail as a way to reach people across a vast distance, and it feels odd to telephone or send mail message to someone when they’re just a few feet away from you. I do exchange phone calls and mail messages with people I work with but I still can’t completely wrap my head around this. I think it’s because I’m a little old-fashioned maybe. I notice some of my older coworkers are also more direct and will come directly to someone’s office (in fact, the two coworkers I sit next to are both like this, in that they seem to make more in-person visits, phone calls, and e-mails in that order) but I have a coworker who is near my age ( a little older) who almost always only sends me emails in bullet points with lengthy comments, when I’m just sitting a few doors down from her… I can only gather that she either doesn’t like talking to me in person, prefers keeping people at an arms distance and/or has intimacy issues working comfortably with someone face to face? I’m not sure.

I still think it’s weird that she goes across the street all the time (because I’m kinda lazy), but maybe you could give her the benefit of doubt?

Also, sorry, but it sounds like you’re a little insecure about your performance. I don’t see what’s wrong with commenting when people are out or not in the office, people at my workplace do it all the time. If someone’s out, they’ll comment or inquire if someone is out, but I don’t really think it’s personal, it’s just stating a fact, such as “Coworker A is out on __ these days, so I’ll ask her when she is back on ___. Coworker B is on vacation, but we can check when he’s back. Coworker C usually comes in at ___, so lets wait until he’s in”. I also really don’t see anything wrong with asking questions in person either, since a lot of people at my office do it too. If someone’s in the middle of something, they just nicely ask you to hold on while they finish an email or a thought or a sentence, etc.

If you’re having a lot of problems focusing and getting into “zone” or “mood” to focus, I that’s also an internal issue to be looked at separately. Unless you’re taking apart a bomb that requires intense concentration and critical timeliness, I don’t see any problem with a quick pop-in, and should relatively be able to get back to work easily, unless they just popped in to announce a death or birth or something majorly emotional that you need to take time off to digest.

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Ask a Manager March 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm

I can only gather that she either doesn’t like talking to me in person, prefers keeping people at an arms distance and/or has intimacy issues working comfortably with someone face to face?

Speaking of giving people the benefit of the doubt…

Some people who do a lot by email (including me) do it because it’s more efficient for them, allows them to gather and organize their thoughts, and gives them a paper trail so they can more easily remember what was agreed to / where things stand. It might not be your way, and that’s fine, but those are some pretty unwarranted assumptions you have above.

If you’re having a lot of problems focusing and getting into “zone” or “mood” to focus, I that’s also an internal issue to be looked at separately. Unless you’re taking apart a bomb that requires intense concentration and critical timeliness, I don’t see any problem with a quick pop-in, and should relatively be able to get back to work easily, unless they just popped in to announce a death or birth or something majorly emotional that you need to take time off to digest.

It depends on what type of work you do. Some people have jobs that require intense focus and a lot of thinking. With certain types of writing, for example, if you get thrown out of your zone, it can take a while to get back into it.

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Lulula March 7, 2013 at 12:35 am

+1
I find that when I don’t have it in email, things get mis-heard, people forget, there’s nothing to refer back to. It’s nothing to do with “intimacy issues”, it’s to do with avoiding a future need to go back and forth about something I could just have written in one place from the beginning. It also often helps me organize my thoughts better, and thus better communicate.

They’ve also done studies on the effects of continuous interruptions on productivity & focus, hence the 101 articles about how you should only check your email once a day (yeah, right!) for optimal workflow. You don’t have to be writing a great treatise on macroeconomics to benefit from sustained focus on one thing or be derailed by 10 second “pop in’s” every 15 minutes.

And there are different ways of asking where people are, some of which imply that the absentee is shirking their duties. “Hey, you know if Wakeem’s around today?” vs “Why isn’t Wakeem at his desk?! Is he even HERE? Well, where IS he?” I assume the issue is more the latter end of the spectrum…

The in-person vs electronic communication divide is sometimes due to just a difference in workstyles or extravert vs introvert – some people just like to be able to talk, or get away from their desks. But the OP’s situation sounds a little more complicated than a clash of preferences at this point.

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Sandrine March 7, 2013 at 5:49 am

Not only that, but unless one is a manager, one has no place judging the concentration needed anyway because you have no way of knowing why I need the concentration.

At my call center job, sometimes I’ve used e-mail to communicate with the coworker sitting near me, only because I can’t exactly chat while dealing with a customer.

Besides, I really like the “documentation” aspect of e-mail.

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Ellie H. March 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Agreed. I think I have pretty good focus and time management in general, but especially when I am under more stress than usual and busy trying to remember many different things at once, I am much more susceptible to being distracted by interruptions. People talk to each other over my desk multiple times a day and it is almost always impossible to focus on what I’ve been doing while they are talking (especially when it relates to my own work which it almost always does).

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Jamie March 7, 2013 at 6:46 am

Intimacy issues? Whether I have them or not it has zero to do with my co-workers.

It’s the arrogance of the mindset that says I must drop what I’m doing right now because a co-worker was passing by and had a thought in their head that’s offensive. The assumption that people’s work is so superficial that they are always ready to deal with interruptions bespeaks a lack of understanding about other people’s jobs.

In thinking about this I’ve realized this rarely happens to me anymore. It used to be a HUGE problem for me – one that absolutely impacted productivity and I bet the fact that I work fewer weekends these days getting caught up has something to do with fewer interruptions.

Some are absolutely valid – if there is a problem that’s bottlenecking production or causing an immediate issue I definitely want to be interrupted. But I remember the days of working intently on a nested sub-report where the data wasn’t compiling correctly – or trying to figure out why some new group policy script wasn’t pushing out to domain users – and having people stop by “for just a second” for issues that were neither urgent nor time sensitive and wanting to pull my freaking hair out.

You don’t have to diffuse bombs for a living to need concentration. And if seeing me eating lunch or running to the bathroom reminds you of a computer problem you forgot to mention – then go send me an email.

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AG March 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I agree!

Also I worked in an open office area for a while and people were always coming to me asking for help with things they could easily figure out on their own if they just took the time. I found that 75% of the time if I said “sure I can help you, can you give me 5-10 minutes?” that they would actually use their brains and solve their own problem. My favorite was when someone asked me what our old business address was…we had just moved, it was on her business card!

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Runon March 7, 2013 at 9:42 am

Well this is an internal issue. It is an issue with your brain. Everyone’s brain. It is called task switching.

There is a time cost involved in that. People who try to avoid interruptions and multitasking are actually listening to their brains and doing what is most efficient for the company and themselves. It isn’t just something that is taking apart a bomb that requires focus. The dismissive nature is not in keeping with the science that says: let people focus if you want to get the best work out of them.

From a relevant study:
“The measurements revealed that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.”
(Links aren’t allowed so do a search for task switching study.)

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Anonymous March 7, 2013 at 8:18 am

Not to overstate the obvious but people are different. Organizations are different. Departments within organizations are different. The best you can do is use the style that works best for you when you can and understand that it’s not your job or responsibility to get co-workers who you don’t manage to change their style on a global level. You can address as it happens – if someone comes in when you’re in the middle of something, say “I’m right in the middle of something but I’ll email that to you when I’m done”. If they press you and it’s not for something truly urgent, repeat your message ” understand you need that and I’ll get it to you as soon as I’m done”. If necessary: “Sorry you wasted a trip over, if you want to give me a call ahead of time in the future, might save you a trip”.

If they stop by and you’re not in the middle of something you can say “Oh good timing, I just got off the XX conference call/ finished some serious number-crunching/etc” — this indicates that you have your own workload and sometimes you are able to address her needs immediately and lucky her, this is one of those times (but sometimes she will come over when you are otherwise occupied).

Forget about why she’s doing it. That’s out of your control and unless she wants to bring it up, don’t globalize the issue, deal with it on a case by case basis, firm but pleasant.

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Tiff March 7, 2013 at 8:52 am

Well shoot – you caught me!! I’d much rather get up off my duff and talk to someone in person than send an email. My second choice is a phone call. And yes, most of the time I want an answer to my question right then and there. I even joke that my real job title is Professional Pest.

But here’s why everyone still loves me and gives me cookies:

- They would rather deal with me than deal with the person who is really asking the question/making the complaint.

- I’ll turn our 5 minute conversation into an electronic communication on their behalf to our customers.

- I consistently cover their behinds and smooth over challenging issues, which often require a tight turnaround.

- I’m actually very nice about it.

My in person visits have nothing to do with a suspicion that my coworkers won’t do the work, and everything to do with my need for (in most cases) an immediate answer. Plus, I need the exercise and I actually like people.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 9:31 am

What you’re doing sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you really do need an immediate answer because a customer needs the answer now, that’s a very different thing than if you’ve just decided that your work trumps theirs.

It might be a good thing if you paid attention to whether you seem like you’re wrecking people’s concentration, though, and ask those particular people if there’s a better way to get what you need from them. You know, if it takes them a second to respond, if the first thing they say to you is “Sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or if they jump when they see you.

Depending on the situation, there might not be, but it would definitely be a courtesy to avoid screwing up people’s workflow any more than you have to.

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Tiff March 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

I usually begin my conversations with, “Do you have a sec?” But yes, because of the nature of my work they make time for me, it saves them time in the long run. In many ways I am our department’s “CYA procedure”.

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KellyK March 7, 2013 at 10:25 am

Well, then, that’s totally reasonable. Can you go teach the OP’s coworker how to interrupt people without driving them insane? ;) It sounds like you’ve got it covered!

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The OP March 7, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Yes! Please!! I’m a total pushover for anyone who asks “Do you have a sec?” or “is this a good time?” I think this gets at the heart of my issue with my coworker: showing respect for others and giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are busy and working hard just like you.

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Tiff March 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

So let me get this straight. In recent months I’ve read some very valid complaints about the following:

Laughing/talking too loudly
Eating crunchy food
Microwaving popcorn
Too strong perfume/cologne
Visiting in person instead of emailing

And the list goes on. I’m beginning to wonder if we, as a working society, have gotten to the point that we prefer to work with machines/animals/inanimate objects…anything but another human being. I’ll take real human interaction over a computer screen any day. Frankly I would be put off by the OP’s attitude. Everything is not an affront to your work program, concentration or ethics.

So far, I haven’t read anything in the original post that suggests that everyone feels the same way as the original poster, or that the woman truly is standing over people’s shoulders. That’s just the impression that the op has of the situation. But the OP clarified early on that this woman needs information from their office on a daily basis. In this case, I don’t know that the solution is to “train” the co-worker to totally change her behavior. The OP should clarify how she/he would rather get these requests, but I think it’s too much to imply that everyone in your office prefers it that way.

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Ask a Manager March 7, 2013 at 10:15 am

I think you’re reading something into the letter that isn’t there or interpreting it through the lens of personal experience rather than what the OP is talking about.

What we’re talking about here is a rude coworker who interrupts conversations, expects people to drop everything to deal with her on her schedule, and complains when people aren’t available when she shows up announced. Sorry, but that’s rude and it’s worth standing up to.

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Tiff March 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Actually, I think that we as a group are reading something in the op that just isn’t there. The OP never said that she has a problem with the in-person visits themselves, or even the interruptions (she mentioned that she would applaud the effort otherwise). The OP’s problem seems to stem from the perceived motivations behind the visits, not the visits themselves. Nobody wants a peer to check up on them like they’re the boss when they’re not. But even those are suspicions, not concrete. I notice she mentioned that she got the impression that this co-worker was coming in person to ensure the work was done on time rather than a concrete example of “She said once that she has to come over here to keep us on track.” Or something along those lines.

Then we as a group began to commiserate about the in person visits, and how disruptive they are. There were some great tips about how to handle a person with a different communication preference, but again – I don’t think the communication preference is the real problem here. That’s just where we ended up because it gets on some people’s nerves.

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Anonymous March 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

I’ll take real human interaction over a computer screen any day.
The key there is “I’ll”. That is YOUR preference. It’s also too much to imply that everyone prefers it your way. This issue here is that we’re all different and when someone who prefers email has to work with someone who prefers coming by in person, there’s going to be a conflict since both parties will not be doing things the way they prefer. In most cases, I think these situations can be handled just fine by reasonable people, each one being flexible enough to accomadate the other as best they can.

I think the source of tension that can escalate is when one party think their preferred option is inherently better – not just different, but better/the right way. That attitude tends to come through and increase the irritation level.

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Jamie March 7, 2013 at 11:31 am

I’ll take real human interaction over a computer screen any day.

I can do 95% of my job without any face to face interaction if I had to.

There are plenty of jobs where the need for constant human contact is part of the deal, it’s how things are done…and that’s great for people who work that way.

It may not be an intentional affront to concentration to drop in whenever the mood strikes – but it’s an affront none the less. Because the message is loud and clear that your time is more important than mine and others should be at your beck and call just because you want to deal with issue A right now.

For emergencies or to tend to time sensitive customer needs absolutely – those are completely reasonable and valid reasons to pop in. And to be honest there are other times when I’m totally fine with it as well – if I’m setting up a new users computer my brain isn’t really engaged so I’m checking AAM while stuff loads and people can feel free to come in and ask a question or chat for a little bit. Totally fine. But that’s where gauging and asking comes in. Ask me if I have a few minutes…or if I’m staring at my screen rubbing my head with a furrowed brow then shoot me an email unless it’s a right now thing.

The inference that somehow people who don’t prefer human interaction are at issue is off-putting. And FWIW I consider email, web meetings, etc. human interaction – just not the kind that demands I stop what I’m doing on their time table.

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Joanne March 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Poor OP. This got kind of ugly.

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The OP March 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm

OP here. Thanks to you all for your advice and suggestions, and particularly to AAM for responding to my question so generously and thoughtfully. Just to clarify, the person in question deals in this manner with at least three different teams of people in my building, and other coworkers are also bothered by it. In general I’m very happy to have face-to-face interactions and I don’t have a problem dealing with interruptions, but I’m glad I’m not the only one that thinks this person’s methods are less than effective. Thanks to all for your insight!

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