how to stop a new coworker’s drop-bys to chat when we’re busy

A reader writes:

We hired a new employee about 4-5 months ago. The five of us work in one office, and she (due to space constraints) shares an office with another employee down the hall.

She’s very friendly, and has a habit of stopping by our office “just to say hi.” The problem is, we’re not really a “stop by and say hi” kind of office. We’re extremely busy, with many phone calls and various projects going on at one time. I’m trying not to be annoyed by her drop-ins, but it’s hard. If we have a team meeting, she’ll come in 10 minutes early to chat. We, on the other hand, will work right up until the time of the meeting. Often she’ll be standing there while we’re answering calls, finishing emails, etc. There are times when she’ll stop by and we have a few minutes of downtime, but that’s rare.

Is there a nice way to address this? Is it terribly rude to say hello and keep working while she stands there?

No, it’s not rude to say hi and then continue working. And most people will pick up on that cue, and learn pretty quickly what the office norms are. But if she’s not, then it’s kinder — to all of you — to be more explicit with her.

For instance, when she comes by 10 minutes before a meeting starts, say hi (in a genuinely warm way) and then say, “We usually work right up until the start of the meeting, so want to come back in 10 minutes?” If she says that she’ll just wait in your office, then let her wait — but turn back to your work and don’t feel obligated to chat with her. If she seems put off by that, it’s fine to say, “Sorry, we’re get so busy that it’s sometimes hard to stop and chat!” In other words, if she’s not figuring it out on her own, spell it out for her, nicely.

As for the stopping by just to say hi at other times, I’d back up and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on. She’s new and her whole team works in one office while she’s down the hall with someone else. That almost certainly means that she’s having more challenges becoming a full-fledged part of your team than she would if she were sitting with the rest of you — or at least she worries that she will. I wouldn’t be surprised if her drop-bys are her effort to mitigate some of that.

So one way for you to address the drop-bys would be for you to find other ways to make her feel like part of your team. Are you reaching out to her, making sure she’s included in group work conversations and decisions, grabbing coffee with her on occasion? If you can find some ways to include her, you might find that she stops the random drop-bys.

And if she doesn’t, at that point you’d be on firmer ground in trying to stop it more directly — by saying, “It’s nice to see you when you drop by, but let’s schedule meetings for the things we need to talk about, because we’re usually deep into whatever we’re working on.” But you want to be sure that you’re saying that against a backdrop of her being fully integrated into your team — and if that’s not yet the case, fix that part first.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. KJ

    My office is located directly next to the President’s. He frequently has someone in his office, or is on the phone. Often people will have a seat in my office to wait for him. Sometimes it’s nice to have a quick chat with someone, but most of the time it is an interruption to me. At this point I continue working through the conversation. This works to a certain extent — they still wait in my office, but at least I’m still getting some work done! I think everyone thinks “it’s only for a few minutes,” and they are the only one who does it. It adds up throughout the day!

      1. Kaz

        The problem is that by saying that, you give him the impression that later you may be able to talk to him, since you only cannot talk to him “now”. This guy sees her through a cloud of hormones, he won’t be able to pick up really subtle clues.

    1. Ash

      That would really irk me. If I were you, I’d make your office less inviting for intruders–remove any extra chairs, keep your door closed (if you are allowed to, or if you even have one), etc. If your president is approachable, I’d also consider letting them know about it. How you’d rather concentrate at work, but their people are interrupting you, so maybe their secretary/admin could inform them to wait somewhere else besides your office?

      1. COT

        Agreed–make your office less comfortable! For instance, could your “visitor” chair be on wheels so it can be stashed in the far corner when you’re not in a meeting? Can you change which way your desk faces? Would playing music change things?

        Also, is there another nearby seating area (or could one be created) for people to wait in? If so, you could then refer them to that area. “I’m sorry Susan, but I’m in the middle of something and can’t chat today. Would you mind waiting for President over by the water cooler?” Signage could help, too–like a sign by the president’s door that points to the waiting area just down the hall. I’m guessing that part of the problem is that there’s nowhere convenient for people to sit while waiting, and so their options are to stand awkwardly/uncomfortably in the hallway (maybe even in the way of passerby) or hang out with you.

        I’d reference that post a couple of weeks ago about the church receptionist who had way too many folks hanging out to chat. There were a lot of great suggestions in the comments.

      2. Mark

        Yes! I’ve found putting objects ON my guest chair helps, too. I’ve even had the office nudge ask if s/he could move the objects–“No I’ve got to get back to it!” Block block block And who are these people who don’t get it?

    2. The Other Dawn

      Put a chair outside between your two offices so people can have a place to sit that isn’t in your office.

  2. Meg

    I tend to start off with small talk when I go bother my coworkers, but I lead into something work-related.

    “Oh hey, how was your weekend? Awesome! By the way, (blah blah blah work stuff)?”

    1. Vicki

      Some of sus would prefer a slightly different start, e.g.

      “Hi, can I interrupt you for a second? I have a question about the (blah blah blah work stuff).”

      Or better, IM or email to say “When can stop by to talk about the White Chocolate Teapots account?”

  3. dangitmegan

    At my office my entire team is on one floor and I (due to the type of space my job needs) am on an entirely different floor that is populated by five other people from a larger team. The large team travels almost 100% of the time so I’m almost always completely alone on the floor. I’m an introvert so this is pretty much awesome for me most of the time. But there will be days that for whatever reason I feel a little lonely so I’ll go downstairs with some question that could have been handled easily over email just so I have some human interaction.

    So I agree, maybe she just feels lonely or really left out of her team. It can be hard to be the last person to know everything because the rest of your team is sitting all together and having normal work conversations that never get back to you. It was really hard the first month or so of this job because I wasn’t around to get to know people and when we’d have meetings I’d see all the inside jokes and closeness that happens just from spending eight hours a day together.

    If she feels more like part of the team she probably won’t drop by so often. Make sure that she’s included in decisions and plans that affect her work even if it’s easier to do a majority rules of the people in your office. If she feels like she’s coming into meetings and seeing a final result that’s a 180 from when you last left it because A, B, and C happened that no one updated her on she’s going to feel like she needs to come chat to find out all the details before the meetings.

    1. COT

      Great insight. If decisions are being made via office conversation rather than email or formal meetings, I’m sure your new coworker struggles to know what’s going on. I know that I’ve been in meetings like this, where all of the decisions and updates happen via other meetings I’m not in, informal conversations, and email chains I’m not on… and I always felt completely lost and unprepared to contribute.

    2. BB

      I also work on a floor separate from most of my team, and my floor is much smaller and quieter. When I was new I often would go down either to say Hi and see what was going on or to ask a simple question that could have been done via email/phone. I was doing it for a variety of reasons, sometimes because I was lonely but mostly to become more integrated with my team as they all shared an office space.

      Also, I was really out of the loop on a lot of things because even if a conversation happened between 2 people, the rest of the staff would overhear it. Short of major decisions none of this information was communicated to me, but the small nuances that don’t seem to require an announcement can certainly have an impact on team dynamics.

      This situation became extremely frustrating for me, and I did see a time where my drop-ins were disruptive for some people so I backed off. But the physical space issue has been a significant challenge that I have actively worked to manage for the work itself and my dynamic and fit with the team. You can only do so much with physical space, but it is important to make sure you manage these situations accordingly if you do not have ideal circumstances.

      1. OP

        I’m not sure if this employee feels “lonely”, per se, since she shares an office with another team member. Our department is split into two teams based on our work. My coworkers and I work on A, while the people down the hall work on B. This new hire is a hybrid of both; she mostly works on B, but does a little bit of A (and reports to our manager).

        Our culture is pretty intense in terms of workload. Everyone eats at their desks, etc. We do a lot of team-building activities outside of work, however. And we do meet weekly to update each other, etc.

  4. Brian

    I’ve found that standing up at your desk, once the chatter box makes their presence known, also gets the point across.

    1. Tasha

      To me, standing up indicates that the person has decided to take a break and is happy to chat for a few minutes. Glancing at the computer monitor is a clearer nonverbal signal, and I think it’s perfectly polite to say “I’m working on X and am at a tricky spot; how about we meet/chat at [time]?” Some of it might be office culture, though.

  5. Del

    Agreeing with dangitmegan here. I’m another introvert, and in the past I’ve actually been told that I need to make more of an effort to talk to people and not just sit in my corner doing my thing all by myself. If I were in this new employee’s position, I’d probably do just what she was doing in order to try and keep some connection to the rest of the team! If there’s absolutely no way she can get moved in with the rest of the team, or that part of the team can’t be moved to be with her, then before you go off on her being so chatty, really make sure she’s not just trying to remind everyone that she does exist and is a part of the team.

    1. fposte

      I don’t think anybody’s going off on her, though–it’s just that the new employee’s problem is not the only relevant one here. Even if she’s being chatty because she’s lonely, the OP still needs to get her work done.

      1. Cat

        I agree that nobody is talking about going off on her, but I think that the issue isn’t loneliness but team integration. That’s why I thought AAM’s advice was so compassionate.

          1. fposte

            Meaning I’m seconding Elaine’s +1, not that I’m giving out one point per employee :-).

  6. JMegan

    Agreed – it’s incredibly difficult to be a “team of one” when everyone else is in a different location. In my case the locations were in different cities – I was by myself in City A, while the rest of the team was in City B. They did a good job of handling formal communications – email, phone, IM, videoconferencing – but there’s really nothing to replace that face to face interaction.

    Even when there’s a video conference, there’s the “meeting before the meeting,” where everybody chitchats about their weekend and their kids and so on, and the “meeting after the meeting” where people follow up on thoughts generated during the official meeting, as they walk back to their desks. Those two occasions are where the team building happens, not during the meeting itself.

    I would really encourage you to make a big effort to help this woman become part of the team. Even to the point of scheduling that ten minutes before the meeting for chitchat if you have to – consider it part of the meeting, even if it’s not on the official agenda.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I feel this; my team is gone most of the time and my boss isn’t even in the same state. I find myself chatting with the other department people who sit near me most of the time. I just got moved into a bigger cube with three (!) chairs, but there’s no one to visit. :( Maybe I need to put a candy bowl in there to make it more inviting, or something.

      Although yesterday, someone did come in and tap me on the shoulder when I had my noise-reduction headphones on, and I nearly hit the ceiling. O_o

  7. AnonHR

    Does she have enough to do? Not that I would want a brand new employee swamped with work, but I know sometimes it takes a while to completely on-board a new employee (and tasks that might have taken longer at first are a lot easier), and sometimes current employees/managers don’t have/take the time to keep an eye on it after the first few weeks of orientation. If she doesn’t have the workload, she may have been counting down the time until she could get to your meeting 10 minutes early. If you get that vibe from her when talking about how she’s settling in (and only if!), you might be able to let her know where to access or take on”pooled” work, or have suggestions for her about how to approach your manager.

    1. OP

      I think that’s part of it – she’s not dealing with the intense workload we are. That will likely change in the next few months.

      1. Tasha

        Does she know that’s the case? She might be assuming everyone’s workload is comparable to hers. And if Team B (with which she spends much of her time) has a less busy or more talkative culture, she might be applying her experience with that team to yours.

  8. E.R

    I finally got a job with as much flexibility as I’ve ever wanted, but am now a team of one myself. Consequently, I come into the office almost every day for a full day, as its the only way to know what’s truly going on (and even then, it’s not always obvious). I feel for this woman, assuming that’s the reason she’s dropping by. It’s hard to find job satisfaction, and perform well, in isolation.

  9. Anonymoose

    I feel sorry for this lady, the one who is trying hard to build a rapport with her new coworkers, only to be repeatedly brushed off as an annoyance. Yes, people are busy, but I find it hard to believe that everyone needs to be plugging away at 110% 7h58m of every single work day. She needs to catch on to the vibe at the new office, but it sounds to me like the new office could maybe tear a page from her book as well, and remember that it’s OK to take a few minutes each day to connect as people, too – especially when there’s a new staff member who is trying to get acclimated and feel like they’re a part of things. I doubt the projects and deadlines will suffer.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It really depends on the office. I often have days where no, I don’t want to stop what I’m doing and chat for 10 minutes. Or even 5. Or even 2, for that matter, if it’s on someone else’s schedule. If I’m racing to finish something up before a meeting in 10 minutes, I can’t stop to chat just because someone felt like coming by at that time — and they’ll need to be okay with seeing I’m busy and not taking offense.

      It IS important to form relationships with people you work with, in most contexts, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be done like this. It can be done at times when you’re not busy being focused on something else.

    2. fposte

      Yeah, in most offices the issue isn’t stopping by, it’s stopping by unexpectedly and expecting to be able to chat regardless of the office occupant’s convenience. If people are empathizing with the co-worker because they’re in that position, it can help to start out with “Is now a good time?” and to explore other ways of connecting–ask people for a scheduled time to get coffee or something, for instance, so you know it’s not an interruption.

      1. Jamie

        And it’s the kind of thing that people who’ve worked together a while tend to know about each other…and someone new might need to be more specifically clued in.

        I always ask if it’s a good time before interrupting in person (on the rare occasion I’m annoying people in person rather than email) but there are times I’ll see someone is intensely focusing and walk away. Sometimes you don’t need to ask. I’m really easy to read and sometimes I’m happy for the little break so people can sit for a few minutes and other times they just wave and walk past my office.

        It’s hard to get to read new co-workers if you work as removed as this seems to be – so a kind heads up about when it is and isn’t good is just doing her a favor.

        1. fposte

          Right, and even in a workplace where we all know each other we have a lot of “On a deadline–can’t talk now!” So it’s clear it’s not personal when people do need to keep their focus.

  10. Rob Aught

    I almost feel like you need to break Alison’s advice down step-by-step because there could be a larger issue.

    1. Set boundaries, make it clear you have work to do
    2. Once boundaries are set, make an effort to reach out to your team member to get them fully integrated
    3. If everyone is so swamped and this person has time to say “Hi”, is the team being utilized effectively. I almost wonder if this person is fishing for something to do. As someone else mentioned, maybe they are just not up-to-speed yet.

    This could be just genuine friendliness, but there is still a lot of insecurity with new hires in general. I have to be careful to balance out my need to get things done with my team’s need to find me approachable. That’s not a “because I’m in management” issue either. I see this all the time with senior team members that have a lot of knowledge and newer team members really looking for someone they can go to for help.

    But even if there is no insecurity, you definitely need to make sure you are making an effort to reach out to your team member because they’ve been isolated from the rest of the team. If they don’t become integrated somehow they will continue to be a time drag even without the “drive bys”

  11. Just a Reader

    I’ve found that scheduling regular touchbases is a good way to at least cut down on the drop by behavior. “Can this wait until our touchbase?”

    Even if it’s just a “hey, you’re new here, let’s meet once a week,” buddy type meeting, a 30-minute meeting could help her feel connected and capture some time back for the LW.

  12. Anonymous

    Keep in mind that she may be basing her behavior on what an old boss wanted because she is not clear on what you want. My current boss loves frequent in-person check-ins and does not seem to be bothered by the interruption. Make it clear to her how you want the flow of communication between you to go – regular meeting, weekly project updates, etc. Also, if she is physically separated, reach out to her. An office lunch? A block of time for everyone to informally catch up with one another? She almost certainly feels excluded and may be seeing other employees getting better projects in part because they are in close proximity to the boss.

  13. Leslie Yep

    What about hosting team work blocks in a conference room? You could do power hours (pick one thing to cross of your to do list and get it done in an hour), or just general work time. You’d have to set the expectation that, yanno, work would happen–so if that’s not likely in your office environment, probably disregard the idea–but it could be a good way to feel a little less isolated and spark some of those informal “Hey, I’m working on X….do you know why we do it like this?” conversations.

    You could also do this more socially with any administrative tasks you all do together – processing/prepping expense reports is a really good one for this. You don’t really need your full concentration and can easily hold a conversation while still getting done what needs to get done.

      1. Spreadsheet Monkey

        I really like this, especially the part about offering to help if you can. Sometimes people feel guilty about asking for help for something they feel they *should* be able to do themselves. That just adds onto the pile of guilt for not getting it done in the first place, and pretty soon you’re buried under a pile of guilt.

  14. Henning Makholm

    Would it be possible to move the new employee into the shared office and let one of the more experienced team members (who already knows how the place works) take the down-the-hall location instead?

    1. EM

      Great idea! We’ve shuffled a few people around at my office so there is a mix of “old” and new people in each area.

  15. Chocolate Teapot

    The other thing I was wondering is that perhaps the new employee should be taking some of the pressure off the rest of the team, but as a new person it takes a while to get up to speed.

    The talking can often be a way to do that e.g. “Am I doing this Chocolate Teapot analysis correctly?”

  16. Cassie

    We have a couple of new employees – one is seated in the adjacent building but doesn’t seem too bothered about being separated from the rest of the admins. I’ve seen her drop by to pick up mail, and she’ll say hi to people, but doesn’t frequently make a specific point to chat with people.

    The other one sits with the rest of us but spends her time roaming the suite. Every morning starts out with a visit to Person A’s office, followed by Person B’s office, and then Person C’s office. And then a long stint in Person D’s office, where she’ll chat with Person D (not work related) but also greet people as they come to talk to Person D or as they walk by.

    She doesn’t have a heavy workload (hence she’s able to do this without interrupting HER work) but I think it’s also because her cubicle entrance is slightly obscured and unless someone is expressly going to see her, she wouldn’t see anyone all day long. I would LOVE a cubicle like that! but that’s my guess on why she has to roam.

    I try to ignore her roaming and continue with my work (she only rarely tries to talk at me) but I can’t imagine how the rest of my coworkers can work and chat at the same time. It’s not for just 5 minutes here and there – it’s for 20-30 minutes a pop, a few times a day.

  17. Eduardo Ramirez

    #4: For what it’s worth, at the giant mega bank I work for lending money to a coworker is expressly forbidden. There are exceptions for family members and for small amounts, such as lunch if you forget your wallet at home. It’s covered in our code of ethics training just as clearly as Don’t turn a blind eye to money transfers to North Korea and Don’t sell customer information to your buddy Harry the Hedge Fund manager. At my workplace, you’d both be fired immediately.

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