my coworker keeps coming to my office and interrupting my work

A reader writes:

My coworker 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 complained when coworkers are out of the office or not available. Her position and mine are at similar levels.

Building relationships through personal interactions is undeniably a good thing. However, the frequency of her visits is forcing me and my coworkers to drop everything to attend to her requests and making it impossible to focus. Any advice?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 82 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. AngtheSA

    My husband deals with this all the time. They have a ticketing system were you submit request and my husband will get back to you. He still has managers who will email him, IM him, or just come up to him while he is working wanting to do it right away. His go to conversation every single time is this

    Him: Did you submit a ticket?
    Them: No
    Him: Well then you need to submit a ticket and I will get to it when I can.
    Them: But it is an emergency (it never is an emergency).
    Him: Ok when you submit a ticket mark it as urgent.

    He then turns around and continues working on whatever he was working on. The only exception is when VP emails him and asked him to do something cause you know… She is a VP and 3 levels above him so she does get priority.

    Reply
    1. Adam V

      Yeah, if a VP came to me without submitting a ticket first, sure, I’d pick up that task immediately, but you know what my first step would be?

      File a ticket saying “VP has X issue” so I can track it! :)

      Reply
        1. Newby

          My sister does the same thing. If someone is really persistent and will not fill out a ticket, she basically walks them through the process taking down their answers, entering them into the system, and then tells them that she created the ticket and they are in the queue. They don’t get to line jump by badgering her.

          Reply
    2. seejay

      Yeah, we had a ticketing system at one of the places I worked as well. I emphasized that we had it in order to track the resources and time spent, etc, and that it would let me get to requests faster than arguing and sending things willy-nilly.

      Re-training people to think that way is hard though, it’s like herding cats. Some will go through the little hole in the wall, others will just tell you to eff off and lay down to give themselves a bath.

      Reply
    3. AndersonDarling

      When bugging IT became a huge issue, we moved the whole department into a separate room with a locked door. Everyone thought they were the exception to the rule so the only solution was to make a physical barrier.

      Reply
        1. AndersonDarling

          After the move, some stern emails, and some stern conversations with the major culprits, the move actually worked. Because IT could focus on tickets, the emergency tickets were responded to immediately. It’s been working well…so far.

          Reply
      1. Lark

        Interesting, my company did the same thing. Apparently the last straw was an incident involving equipment being thrown over the wall at an IT employee; they now reside in an unmarked, undisclosed location that is locked to the company public.

        Reply
      2. turquoisecow

        I think my old company did that, but they said the reason was to protect all the sensitive machinery that they didn’t want damaged (or stolen). I wonder now…

        Reply
      3. Wanna-Alp

        Oooohhhhh, now I see why the new building we just moved into has a separate big room for the IT team with a locked door. I thought it was to protect the servers, but…

        (Not that we make much use of IT, we usually do our own IT.)

        Reply
      4. cataloger

        When I worked in IT, someone made a sign for my door that said: GO AWAY. THIS MEANS YOU. People stopped at the door, read the sign, laughed, and walked in to ask their question anyway.

        Reply
        1. Zombeyonce

          Someone down the aisle from me (in IT) has a sign on their cubicle wall that says “Every time you come to ask me about your ticket, I add a day to your ticket due date.”

          Reply
    4. IANAL (I Argue Nightly About Llamas)

      I had a policy a few jobs ago that it’s only an emergency if someone is dying, and if someone is dying, call an ambulance, not me.

      It helped slightly.

      Reply
    5. turquoisecow

      My husband works from home 2-3 days a week, because when he’s in the office, he gets no work done. Constant interruptions to ask questions that could quite easily be answered in an email. So he schedules meetings for 2-3 days a week and works from home the rest – and on the work from home days, he gets stuff done. Thankfully, his boss completely understands.

      Reply
      1. meswedut

        Using Chrome on a Mac, you can control-click on the link and select “Open Link in Incognito Window”. Assuming most browsers these day have something similar.

        Reply
  2. Ama

    I had a similar problem when I was doing a lot of general admin work, in that my coworkers would get used to just dropping by my desk and expecting an immediate answer, but it was hard for some people to get that immediate answers were easy for “hey, where do we keep the extra staplers?” or “did the mail come yet?” but that ” can you walk me through the process for requesting an advance?” or “I want to do this elaborate project, can you help me set that up?” were things I couldn’t always drop my current task to answer or that I needed to research first.

    I did find that the email deflection was a pretty handy one, both because at least a few of them started to pick up that they got a more thorough answer that way (and didn’t have to waste time trying to catch me at my desk, which on certain days was not easy), and because it made it easier for me to not overlook something. I would even explain it that way “Can you please send me an email about this? I’ve got to finish up this task before I can check into that for you and that will make sure I don’t forget.”

    Reply
  3. Elemeno P.

    Related: My predecessor dropped everything to help a particular lady (not our boss, or even our department) who left things until the last minute and needed answers NOWNOWNOW, and I had to kind of train her out of that. I manage a system with a lot of information and am always happy to look things up within my system, but she was asking for really specific things that a) weren’t in my system b) required leaving the office to take measurements/counts and c) were things that she really should have in her own files (Ex. She is an interior designer for restaurants, my system says how big a restaurant should be, she wants to know how many chairs are in a particular restaurant…that she designed).

    I used to say that I could get her information within 24 hours, but that wasn’t good enough because she needed it NOW. Then I stopped responding to her emails when I got them, and only sent a response (still within 24 hours!) when I had the information. It works well.

    Reply
  4. Lee

    Great advice as always. One other thought that may or may not apply here, but could be useful for others in a similar situation: could she be lonely/craving human interaction? I know that when I’m separated from colleagues for awhile tend to make up an excuse to swing by rather than email. (Not as annoyingly, I hope!)

    If she’s working in one building but the rest of the people she works with frequently are across the street, she may be feeling out of the loop, etc. She’s going about the ‘forging relationships’ piece all wrong, of course, but something to think about.

    Reply
    1. Rex

      On that note, is it possible she has a legitimate concern about responsiveness from that group? If she’s tried lots of ways and this is the only way that’s worked, it’s possible she’s doing this out of frustration, and will back off if she starts getting the responses she needs.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        That was certainly my thought: How urgent are her requests, and is the team otherwise slow to respond? The OP doesn’t say, and Alison’s advice applies to requests that “aren’t urgent.” If they are time sensitive, I feel a little bit for the coworker, because she’s probably been tasked with coming up with this info by hook or by crook asap. And I bet she’s being rewarded for doing what it takes to get the answers she needs right now! Point is, it may be a larger systemic workflow issue rather than one person with poor boundaries.

        Reply
    2. That Would Be a Good Band Name

      I wondered about wanting interaction as well. Or just not being someone that likes to sit at a desk for long periods. I have a couple of coworkers who will walk to other departments that are as much as two blocks away (we’re in a HUGE building) when email or a phone call would work.

      Reply
      1. turquoisecow

        I used to walk to talk to coworkers rather than just call or email because it was an excuse to get away from my desk, and have some social interaction. This is a definite possibility in this situation.

        Reply
  5. Ophelia Bumblesmoop

    I think that what I love most about Alison is that she provides scripts. That’s where so many people doubt themselves. You know you need to tell someone to back off and mind normal boundaries, but how can you do it in a way that is both professional and effective? The scripts are perfect.

    Reply
    1. Elle

      Yes! Also this has been said before about other photos to accompany articles, but I love that stock photo with this post.

      Reply
    2. Princess Carolyn

      I agree! I’ve read enough advice on the subject to know the key is to train people how to treat you — but I struggle to come up with tactful ways to phrase these things. Alison is a master of scripts.

      Reply
  6. AndersonDarling

    Something to try if you need to convince someone you are too busy to chat….
    When someone comes by to ask me something and I am honestly busy, I put my finger on my screen to keep my place. I keep that pose as I turn to ask what the individual needs. Everyone understands that I can’t be distracted and either gives an abridged update or just says they will come back later.
    You get fingerprints all over the screen, but it’s worth it.

    Reply
    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

      This is a really interesting tactic. Mots of my job is writing, and therefore revising and editing, so I will definitely try this. I don’t get interrupted nearly as much as the OP with “me me me, now now now”, but it does happen more than I would prefer

      Reply
    2. Nonprofit Nancy

      I keep eye contact with my screen. And I address the person in a distracted tone of voice, without looking up. Another good line is, “is this urgent? I’m working on something time-sensitive right now.” A few times of this and they’re way less likely to want to drop by and chat with me.

      Reply
  7. blatantlybianca

    This –> “Stop letting her have the inch. She’s forfeited her claim to it.” The scripts are tremendously helpful in helping one build up a polite spine.

    Reply
  8. Kimberly R

    I am a people-pleaser and I have trouble not dropping everything to help the person standing next to me, even when my current task is more important. I have started to make my own little script for these situations:
    Coworker: Hey, can you do this thing for me? I have (non-urgent) task to be done right away!
    Me: I can absolutely help with that. I have 2 critical things to do and it will be the very next thing I tackle (note: I don’t specify the critical things, because she doesn’t need to know how much time they’ll take me, and I can’t know if something else critical will pop up.)
    Coworker: Oh but I need it right now!
    Me: I have these critical things that MUST be done first. I am happy to help after but these will have to be completed first.

    I show my willingness to help and do my job (and if coworker tries to say I wasn’t willing to help, my script counteracts that) but I’m not rewarding the behavior. I make sure I say everything pleasantly with a smile.

    Reply
  9. Atrocious Pink

    Argh. I deal with this almost daily. A coworker was promoted into a position she had virtually none of the skills for (I’m pretty sure they did this because it was cheaper than hiring a qualified person from outside). Her position is a different function from mine but happens to be something I know a lot about. Two-plus years in, she still mostly lacks any clue about not just the higher-order functions of her job but professional norms in general. Compounding matters, she has no initiative and doesn’t trust her own judgment and will seize on the slightest excuse to shift a decision onto someone else — often me. She shows up at my desk multiple times per week with this problem or that, and often will arrive bearing a printed copy of an email she received, expecting me to drop everything and read it that instant. The one time I was in total crisis mode when she showed up, and I told her I would have to get back to her later, she just looked like “does-not-compute” and kept talking. It took three “I’ll-get-back-to-yous” before it sunk in. Professional cluelessness aside, she’s actually a lovely person, and I can’t bear the thought of possibly being mean to her. I’m glad I won’t be here much longer and truly feel for whomever they hire to replace me.

    Reply
    1. anonderella

      “and often will arrive bearing a printed copy of an email she received”

      This was my favorite part – does she know she can email/highlight content and digitally share it with you? True, there may be a legitimate reason she’s printing them out, but this image was just hilarious to me; her taking the time to *print it out* and then running over all worry-face, clutching the printed email, and expecting you to immediately read it.
      bahahahaha – like, that’s the point of the message system; when you’re ready, it’s there.

      Reply
      1. Atrocious Pink

        Clearly, you’ve been spying on us. Worry-face is spot on!

        I’m sure she knows she can forward an email, but for some reason, she thinks printing them and running around clutching them is preferable. Annotation is probably beyond her.

        Reply
  10. MashaKasha

    This is my pet peeve. But hardly anyone at my workplace does this. Also, the few people who used to do this to me, seem to have stopped lately, probably because my response is always “I don’t have the answer for you off the top of my head, let me look it up and I’ll get it to you shortly” (write their question down on a notepad, go back to whatever I was doing before they walked in). Which is actually true; everyone comes in with complex questions related to different parts of what we support or work on, and, if my focus is on parts A, B, and C at the moment, I cannot instantly pull everything related to part Z out of my memory for my surprise visitor.

    Reply
  11. Miss Elaine E.

    This reminds me of a situation from my long ago job as a reporter for a chain of weekly newspapers. My deadline was on Tuesday for a Wednesday paper while my office mate’s deadline was on a different day. Tuesdays were obviously my busy day and so I would grab the empty office across the hall first thing on Tuesday and do all my writing and phone calls. (This was in the olden days when we had to submit our articles on a specialized computer system, one of those terminals was across the hall.)
    One particular Tuesday, I must have snapped at her for bugging me (I don’t really remember). The next Tuesday, I got in early and was typing away madly when she knocked and came in and said, “Hi. I just wanted to tell you that I won’t be bugging you today.”

    Whuuuuut?

    Reply
  12. Rincat

    I’ve had to do this with email. I work IT at a university, so I deal with lots of faculty. Many of them expect immediate answers and help. We don’t typically get a lot of walk-ins since the campus is big, but if they send you an email, they want their answer NOW ( and usually the question was, This complex multifaceted system is broken and I don’t understand it, fix my non-specific problem I have no details for). I had to train them to not expect instant emails. Depending on the person and the nature of the request, I’d let a little time go by before answering – even if I could just pop off the response in a few minutes. Typically it was just an hour or two, but that buffer worked great in training them to be patient, and it gave me some time if I did have to look things up or consult other people.

    Reply
    1. Nolan

      I do client tickets, and most of our clients behave themselves, but once in awhile we’ll get someone who wants an immediate response and submits several tickets in a row. It’s especially annoying because our response times are really fast, like less than 30 minutes, so there’s nothing to get all crazy about. Usually I’ll merge the first one or two into the original, and then call them out on later duplicates.

      We usually will put some kind of reply out at the beginning of a long one though. So when somebody submits a really complicated or weird issue, we’ll send a vague “we’re investigating it” message to help keep them from getting antsy. It works for about 90% of our client base.

      We have another client who is notorious for sending multiple responses in a row, so instead of sending one reply with all her collected thoughts, she replies three times with three different pieces of information. That’s impacted her negatively a few times, when her first comment was overlooked, or her last one didn’t arrive until after we responded ourselves, and we’ve repeatedly told her not to do it, but she never learns.

      At least none of them can show up at my door to bother me in person. But training yourself to say “okay, I’ll take a look at this in a bit” is the way to go when they can.

      Reply
  13. Jady

    ‘when it is urgent’…

    To people like this, it’s always urgent!!!

    We have a ticketing system with a ‘Priority’ field. And people do actually use it, fortunately (?) lots of us work in different states, so we don’t have the face-to-face problem. But regardless, everything is *always* marked as the highest priority.

    So when everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency. If people start harassing us (email/phone/IM), I ask for an explanation of why it’s actually an emergency and what is the *latest* date they need it. Typically it’s a week or two away. Once, ever, has it actually been seriously urgent…

    Reply
      1. turquoisecow

        One of my coworkers complained about this often. A particular person would send her tasks that were ALWAYS marked urgent with a big red exclamation point! on every email in Outlook. She told them “when you mark EVERYTHING as urgent, I presume NOTHING is urgent.”

        They didn’t get the message. I hope none of their stuff was actually urgent. She didn’t delay it extensively, but she definitely didn’t treat it as urgent.

        Reply
    1. Zombeyonce

      We have a Priority field in our ticketing system as well, but if you choose “urgent” in that field, you’re required to put something in the “reason urgency is required” field. Since adding that requirement, the urgent tickets have gone down AND the tickets marked “urgent” that come in are easy to reprioritize if they’re not actually urgent based on what’s in that field.

      Reply
  14. Mike C.

    I think the biggest issue that comes next is the escalation up the chain of command. She goes to her boss to make the request, your boss defends you, 2nd level boss makes a request and so on. If someone is caught off guard it can look like

    So make sure you head that off by speaking with your management about the issue, so that they aren’t caught off guard and can use their authority to best deal with these situations. I’ve been caught in the crossfire way too many times and it’s incredibly annoying.

    Reply
  15. Nan

    Hmmm….. I always just go with “hang on” or “I need to finish this, can I get back you” and it works. Or, “is it urgent, I’m in the middle of this, can I get back to you.” and it works.

    I work in a call center environment, and my team is one of the few that isn’t hooked up to an autodialer, so they control their own workflow. People know this and like to stop by and chat on their break time, which may not be my person’s break time. They’ve gotten fairly good at shooshing people away, but I always tell them they can blame me if the person won’t go away. “Nan said I have to have this done by 10, and I’m cutting it close, can we chat at lunch?” If it’s a repeat, repeat, repeat offender, I may go to their direct supervisor and ask them to have chatty employee cut it out.

    Now, when it’s my team interrupting each other’s work, then it’s “break time, already?” or “guys, call somebody” and that’ll get them back on track.

    Reply
  16. RP

    I will say I am the person who does lots of pop ins. I do it for my co workers and team as a check in and to showcase availability. I also find it to be relationship building. It is not uncommon for me to pop by 6 or 7 times a week on most people. This is fairly eye opening.

    I will say my biggest issues are when my work is held up by people getting me something or reviewing an email and a day has gone by with no response. For example, I needed a list pulled for client data – I submitted it and i got tons of email follow up from the other person asking for more detail. I gave it and explained if it helped move it along – it may be faster to touch base via phone or in person – It took 15 emails for the person to schedule a meetings with me 4 days away to talk. I get busy – but those pop ins get the job done and keep my work flowing.

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      There’s definitely a time and place for it. But I’d say it’s a bit dramatic as a technique because it is demanding of the person’s time: you’re asking them to drop everything and deal with what you need *right now.* It can be effective, so it’s tempting, but it can backfire especially if what you’re asking for isn’t actually urgent. The risk is you can come across as extremely annoying, so you have the weigh the pros and cons of it.

      Reply
    2. SL

      Popping in to coordinate dates is efficient. Popping in to demand that complex thing be taken care of RIGHT NOW is hella annoying. You got deadlines? Well, I got deadlines too. Your boss wants this done today? Well, my boss wanted work from me yesterday. It’s crazy making.

      Reply
      1. turquoisecow

        Yeah, I agree. There’s a difference between popping in to check on the status of something with the intent of pushing it along or ending backup and popping in to talk about some complex project, without scheduling a meeting, when the other person is in the middle of some complex project themselves. In one, you say “Hey, I just wanted to make sure you saw my email about X project and see if you had any issues or concerns about getting it done, or if there’s some hold up?” and in the other you say “OMG my issue is URGENT, let’s talk about it NOW!”

        Reply
      2. RP

        I definitely don’t demand and all my pop ins are check in on deadline style. I will also add, a lot of my pop in style is 30% checking in on projects and 70% relationship building (how was your weekend kind of stuff – how’s this work week looking for you – need any help, etc).

        On the subject of why I check in for work stuff – radio silence or ignoring my request for scheduling meeting (over 2 business days) to discuss simple tasks is poor teamwork. From my perspective both in the case of the letter Alison addressed and in my experience – people are getting the constant check ins because there is poor communication on deadlines and expectations. I, as a person who pops in, have a timeline and sense of priority that differs from the person I need to check in on constantly. Change needs to occur on both ends of that relationship for work to be productive.

        Reply
        1. Zombii

          Ymmv, but I find relationship-building check-ins to be incredibly annoying. I’d rather be doing my actual work than exchanging bland pleasant social scripts in a work setting.

          If it works for you, and your team, keep at it.

          Reply
  17. Elder Dog

    I agree with Alison’s advice except for this one piece:
    It’s also good practice not to be 100% rigid about it. For the sake of being nice, you can occasionally allow one of these interruptions — just don’t train her to think she can rely on it.
    This sounds like just “being nice,” but in practice, this is using variable or intermittent rewards, and is the perfect way to get somebody to continue a behavior. In fact, it’s how gambling works to addict people.
    If you want someone to stop doing something, you have to refuse to reward them every single time. You can’t reward them on a random schedule, because that cements the behavior. If it’s behavior you don’t want, that’s not “nice.”

    Reply
  18. Sarah

    I’m an “office-drop-by-er.” I don’t really do it for immediate answers or action, I just like to get out of my office, walk a bit, and have some social interaction in my day. But I certainly don’t go to different buildings for it and if someone is busy I’m happy to email them instead.

    Reply
  19. SL

    Oh god, I needed this today. I feel guilty for not being “nice”, but I finally set boundaries yesterday.

    **VENTING TIME** I do sample analysis and I have one lady from another department that submits samples that are “urgent” every time. She submitted samples just this Monday morning and asked if I could have it analyzed by the afternoon? I said probably not, but I would give it a fair shot. Well, I didn’t have time Monday and then the machine had problems Tuesday morning so I couldn’t do it then either….

    Well, by Tuesday afternoon she had emailed me twice, called my personal cell number once, and then finally dropped by in person to pressure me into doing it. She wanted it done immediately because her boss was pressuring her she said. She said she was going to wait in my office until I had finished the order ! I told her that I had other obligations, but I would try to do her samples before I left for the day. At this point, I was unhappy with her but I was willing to make the effort still…

    Until 30 minutes later when I get an email from her co-worker asking if I can finish HIS samples today too. So clearly she’d gone back to their department and bragged to him about how she had gotten me to agree to do the work faster. Well, now I’m pissed. So I send her an email that’s says 1) your samples aren’t getting done today!, 2) your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part, and 3) your “checking in” is excessive; trust me to do my job.

    LOL well, she walked in here today sour-faced, said the analysis wasn’t good (I warned her about the problems with the instrument!), and that she wanted her samples back so she could send them to somebody. I was like, ‘kay here you go, good luck!

    Reply
  20. Fifty Foot Commute

    This happens to me a lot, not with one particular person but just in general. My tactic is to give them my full attention while they tell me what they need, write it on a post-it, and say “Alright I’ll do that,” or “It’s on my list,” while sticking said post-it to the side of my desk, and pointedly turn back to my computer in an attempt to convey, “You are excused.” Mostly it works. If they’re still standing there after a minute or so, I go with, “Is there anything else you need help with?”

    Reply
    1. SL

      That works with most people, but this lady keeps pushing until I cave and commit to a deadline. Otherwise, she won’t leave the room. What would you say to her?

      Reply
      1. Fifty Foot Commute

        I’d probably give her an overly conservative deadline. So, if it’s something I’m going to take care of within an hour of them walking away from my desk, it would be, “Great, I’ll have that done for you by [day-after-tomorrow].

        At work that is. In my personal life, I would be spitting mad and not assertive enough to do anything other than what she wants. I definitely feel for you.

        Reply
        1. turquoisecow

          Under promise and over deliver, that’s the way to go. Tell them you’ll get it done day after tomorrow and then maybe deliver it late tomorrow, if you feel like being nice. If it’s a person who’s especially pushy all the time, I might not feel like being nice. I might push it to the bottom of my to-do list.

          Reply
          1. SL

            Hah! I’ve already thought about being petty and analyzing her samples last. I want my turnaround to be no more than 2-3 days, but this time I did tell her not to check in with me unless at least a week had gone by. I really hope she listens.

            Reply
          2. Candi

            Scotty: Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would *really* take, did ya?
            Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Well, of course I did.
            Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

            Or just to keep nagging coworkers at bay. :p

            Really, unless it’s for a criminal case and discovery is tomorrow, she can bloody wait her turn.

            Reply
  21. VioletFem

    How Timely!
    A friend is dealing with a similar problem at work and asked me for advice about this just last week. I gave him the same advice Allison outlined and sent him the link to the original article when this was first published in 2013. He found it very helpful.

    Reply
  22. hayling

    I had a coworker like this. The worst would be when I would ask him something (simple and not urgent) by chat, and he would come reply in person. He was like a puppy coming when called. He was super insecure and I think he thought he was being helpful. It drove me nuts!

    Reply

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