how can managers get “alone time”?

A reader writes:

I work for a busy law office that manages hundreds of files for large corporations daily. The work is very detail oriented, and even the slightest issues can set us back tremendously.

I supervise a group of 5 other people, all of whom have been with the firm for less than 9 months. Since I developed all the processes our team follows, I am by default the go-to person for questions. I get questions not only from my team, but the other teams in our department as well. On any given day, I say I’d get at least 50 emails asking me “what if” or “how come” types of questions.

As a supervisor, I still have my own set of work to handle aside from supervising the work that others do on my team. Often we get rush files from our clients, and because they need to be processed very quickly and with 100% accuracy, I will do them myself as to avoid my team members’ doing them incorrectly — or answering numerous questions that will come up if I rely on someone else to do them.

The problem is that while I am working diligently to finish rush requests from clients, my team members find it difficult to understand that when I am trying to focus on these projects I do not have the time to answer their questions or talk them through their issues. I hate to be unapproachable, so I will typically still answer questions even though I’m already swamped. My department has an “accessibility” mantra, and being helpful and communicative is our number one priority. I have no problem being communicative, but I need peace and quiet here and there to just get to my own work.

Is it unprofessional if I tell my team, “okay everyone, for the next 2 hours, I’m working on an important project, so asking me questions is off limits”? Or do I just need to grin and bear it as the life of a supervisor?

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.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. MindoverMoneyChick*

    Another thing that can help is the flip side of blocking off time to concentrate. That’s having some set “office hours” where people know they can always come ask questions and you will be available. Use that time to answer emails as well. The trick to this working is you need to be very consistent about being available during the times you say you will. If people know what to expect you can train them to come to you at certain times of the day, leaving other times more available for thinking time.

    1. Emi.*

      This is a good idea! I think it would also nudge your employees to be more thoughtful about which questions they actually bring to you, if they’re currently not doing enough research on their own.

    2. Coalea*

      I came here to suggest exactly that! In a previous job, I was overwhelmed by constant questions from the team that I managed and “office hours” turned out to be a godsend!

      1. Katelyn*

        my boss does “office hours” and also color-codes her calendar so that we can see the meetings that are super high-priority and not to be interrupted vs. the ones that are “meh, I’m on the call in case anyone has a specific question/to keep up to date on a project, but I can handle multi-tasking or drop off without consequences”. It really helps us see when we can squeeze in time with her.

        1. zora*

          I love this! I’ve been thinking about trying to get my boss to adopt a color coding system for her calendar because it would make it easier for me to be able to move some things around when necessary without having to check in with her. Plus, it would make it easier for other folks to understand when she is really available. This has convinced me to give it a try!

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes! I do a few things to signal when I’m available. I print out my weekly calendar and stick it on my door, include a disclaimer that it may change, and color code it for availability when I’m in office (e.g., red = not available unless you are on fire or a client is in a life-or-death emergency; yellow = working on things that require focus, but ok to interrupt with short questions or by email; green = come on in). I’m also aggressive about making sure I have a core number of hours when I’m available every day that I’m in the office.

      Another strategy that might help is to write down or create flowcharts of whatnot for the processes that OP currently stores in their head. Then you can at least point new llamas to the written process/protocols for their clarification. It sounds like it may also help to offer a comprehensive training and possibly train some of your baby llamas to serve as “peer counselors” to the other llamas, and then they can field low-level questions instead of all the questions having to go through you.

      I would also encourage getting a little more comfortable with shutting down non-constructive questions. Both “what ifs” and “how comes” can be helpful for clarifying someone’s understanding, or they can be obnoxious efforts to relitigate an issue that’s already closed for discussion at this point. Sometimes an explanation isn’t really required or merited.

      Finally, I’m going to gently push back on Alison’s advice re: emails, because unfortunately in law firms, llamas often do expect semi-immediate responses. That said, you can reset their expectations. I tell people to call me if it’s an emergency so that I don’t miss or overlook their email, which seems to really decrease the number of questions I’m asked without much head’s up (it’s so easy to email your manager and be annoyed at their delay, but it’s a little harder to be snippy if you have to make the effort to pick up a phone and interrupt them).

  2. Dealtwiththis*

    Our Director regularly puts “conference call” or “on deadline” stickies outside of his closed door so that we know not to interrupt. Of course, he would still answer if it were urgent but it stops us poking our head in for a “quick question”. What makes this work though is that his door is open the rest of the time and is open more than it’s closed.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I agree with this approach, with the caveat that it requires an office that gives people doors.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        A colleague has green, yellow, and red signs that she hangs on her external cube wall, with brief descriptions on them (welcome!, available for urgent questions, and do not disturb — or something like those). She also sometimes blocks the entrance to her cube with a piece of tape (and the red sign hanging from it) when she absolutely cannot be disturbed.

    2. Jaydee*

      I’m not a manager but do have to balance the mix of intense focus and interruptions from others, so I hang a similar sign and put a time when I will be available. Then I make it a point to be available at that time. So my sign might say “currently hiding from distractions – available at 2:30.” If it’s something truly urgent (there’s a fire or Costco cake or something) then people can still interrupt. But if they just have a question about something, they can come back at 2:30. And then if it’s 2:30, I make sure to pull the sign down or open the door so people know I mean it.

      1. Janice in Accounting*

        I like how you equated fire and Costco cake. Both are definitely an emergency! Come get me, either way! :P

    3. always in email jail*

      I do this as well, almost with that exact wording! I usually add “please email” at the bottom because during some conference calls I can check my email and respond quickly (thus avoiding a longer conversation) or I may have scheduled myself some time during my “on deadline” work time to knock out quick questions sent by email.

      As you mentioned, though, I think the reason this is successful is because my door is open far more than it is closed, so the closed door really makes people stop and think

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      My boss does this, too. She constantly gets interrupted with questions/issues, so if her office door is shut it means she shouldn’t be interrupted. Ex: confidential meeting, tight deadline, conference call, etc. Her door is definitely open more often than it is shut, though.

      Sometimes she’ll send a note out to our team to let us know that even though her office door is closed, we can come in if we have an urgent question. She only shut the door to stop the interruptions from people outside of our department.

    5. DataQueen*

      I do this! Unfortunately, I get “oops, thought you left the sign up by mistake” more often than I’d like, but it does help. I’d love to make one that just says “No.” and put that up one day…

  3. Health Insurance Nerd*

    “Often we get rush files from our clients, and because they need to be processed very quickly and with 100% accuracy, I will do them myself as to avoid my team members’ doing them incorrectly — or answering numerous questions that will come up if I rely on someone else to do them”

    I’m confused as to why the team is not being trained to handle some of these requests. Some of the key traits of a good manager (IMO) are having the ability to delegate work and empower others, and it doesn’t seem like that is happening, here.

    1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      “I supervise a group of 5 other people, all of whom have been with the firm for less than 9 months.”
      I think the key here is they haven’t been trained YET. Or they may be trained to do that *if they aren’t a rush* but simply don’t have the competencies/capabilities to complete these tasks on an emergency basis because they take longer to do them (and they may need to be reviewed more closely, etc.).

      1. Health Insurance Nerd*

        Point taken- but even though they’ve been there less than a year, it sounds like they’ve been there at least six months, which is a decent amount of time to get up and running. If the OP is spending a lot of time dealing with these rush requests, it seems like there are some opportunities for the team to receive additional training so they lighten the OPs load.

        1. Xarcady*

          This stuck out for me, as well. To ease up on the pressure of these files, the OP could pick one or two of the highest performing members of her team, and work with them to deal with these files. Even if they just did all the preliminary work, and the OP did a final quality check, it might free up a significant portion of her time.

          I’ve been in a similar place before, with a pretty new team, tons of work and no time for training beyond the basics. I was working 12 hour days for weeks in a row, and felt that if I took the time to train someone else, both my work and their work wouldn’t get done on time. Until I finally told my manager what was going on, and she got me help from another department for a couple of weeks (from people who had previously worked in my department), to free up my time to do further training.

          1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

            This is a good point. I was in a similar place myself a few years ago and ended up being out of the office for a significant amount of time due to a death in the family … forced my employer to re-evaluate my workload so I could focus on training my new staff and getting them up to speed. Once I did, I was able to take all of that work back, and then some. But it really is key to have management buy-in to actually give her time to train her staff properly.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It does sound like OP should consider allocating more time to training, but the lack of capacity may be a lawyer thing. Six to nine months is not usually enough time for a baby lawyer to be adequately trained to handle something solo (especially not at law firms). Depending on what work product OP is generating, it can take 2-3 years before an attorney is allowed to handle a time-sensitive and detail-focused task solo (or with minimal oversight).

          That said, it sounds like taking a step back to figure out the framework for teaching/training the baby llamas (especially with respect to learning by doing) could save OP time and yield better outcomes in the long term.

      2. TootsNYC*

        But this means that the OP needs to prioritize the training of these other people.

        Her job is not to do the tasks. It’s to make sure the tasks get done right by other people. This is a crucial distinction.

        So, lay out that plan. Start with your strongest person, and focus on getting them up to speed. Even if it means stuff moves a little more slowly. Because it will only be able to move quickly if she can get her staff up to speed.

        Also–some thinking is needed. Why are people coming to her? Is the process not documented well enough?

        Why is a different department coming to her? Does she need to sit down w/ their manager and bring that person up to speed? If that manager knows this stuff already, she needs to send them back to their own department.

        And she should say to her own staff: “Where have you looked for the answer to this question? What do you think the answer should be? If I weren’t here, what would you guess would have been my answer?”

    2. Michelenyc*

      I agree with you completely. The team has been there long enough that a majority of these rush jobs need to be delegated. As said below pick your highest performers and train them first. Additionally, at some point your are going to want to go on vacation, get sick, or have an emergency where you won’t be in the office to take care of these rush jobs. What’s your back plan if that should happen?

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Maybe because it’s Law, they just plain need more experience before they can do what Op does? I’m picturing the new hires on Better Call Saul that have to do research in the basement to earn their stripes.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Then she needs to figure out how to give them that experience. If she’s doing it for them, they’re not getting experience.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think that’s likely true, but it’s also true that she needs to give them opportunities to learn, which can’t happen if she does “does it herself” every time.

  4. Kit*

    See, stuff like this is why I love this blog. This post answered questions I didn’t even know I had. Thanks, Alison!

  5. Parenthetically*

    I absolutely agree about the training. If you’re averaging ten basic what-if and why type questions per team member per day (!!!), that says to me they don’t feel confident or empowered in their roles and/or tasks. I think you a) retrain, b) compile some go-to resources for ongoing questions, and then c) set it as a team value that team members generally work independently/prioritize questions/use resources available to them/troubleshoot their issues before asking/whatever. I also really like Mindover’s suggestion above about office hours — that’s really smart.

  6. Nan*

    I think you can absolutely tell them you are unavailable from this time to that time. I send a morning email to my team every day. Most of it is just happy goings on and things, and there is always a section of work related things. If I need time, it will say “I need to work on xxxxxxxxx today, and will be unavailable unless it’s an emergency, but I will respond to your emails. If it’s urgent, please grab me”

    The trick is your staff knowing what’s urgent and what’s not.

  7. Thomas E*

    I agree with the answer but think you also need to schedule one-to-ones as a regular part of your management practice since this will mean that employees will know that there will be a time you are available to answer non urgent questions.

    1. Thomas E*

      Also, could you approach your boss and find out if he can assign a part time senior teapot engineer to your team? Seems it may need someone else as your wing man when you’re on holiday.

    2. LQ*

      I think this is a great point! If the only face time you get with your boss is when you have an urgent question, it makes a kind of sense to have urgent questions. We’ve been calling it the arson approach. You don’t want people turning a spark into a fire so they can be seen as putting it out. And if you don’t have regular conversations with people I think it can really lead to this quickly.

    3. NW Mossy*

      Totally agree – my team really likes weekly one-on-ones for this reason. It’s also a better format for “how come” questions than email or a pop-by because it’s faster and it allows for follow-up questions to fit in naturally.

  8. paul*

    OP: Every effective manager I’ve ever had did exactly what you’re debating doing.

    Given the number of basic procedural questions you seem to get, you might want to look at training/empowering too (but maybe this is a side effect of your team being mostly new?). But still, yes, blocking out a little time as a “do not disturb” block can make sense.

  9. Kimberly R*

    In my department, we each have 1 hour each day scheduled as a “power hour”. Phones are set to Do Not Disturb and emails are ignored unless they are urgent. Anyone with an office closes their door. We switch off hours so that others are available to help out while we’re each in our power hour. This 1 hour each day is really helpful to complete high priority items or items that require all your concentration. We have a helpful can-do attitude culture here too, but management realizes that some tasks will NOT get done as well or quickly if we can’t have quiet time to focus. So I agree with Alison that OP needs to find some blocks of time to schedule for herself.

  10. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)*

    You might also benefit from triaging the *types* of questions you answer, as well as how often you do it. If I’m reading this right, it sounds like a lot of the questions you’re fielding are hypotheticals, like “what if we did X instead of Y?” or “how come we do A instead of B?” If that’s the case, you don’t actually need to answer these kinds of questions at all. I’m a big believer in explaining *why* we do things the way we do, but there’s a time and a place for that, and in an environment where both speed and accuracy are important, then the background to all that should be a lower priority.

    So if you can answer “how do I do this?” quickly and without interrupting your train of thought, do that. But definitely leave “how come we do this?” to another time. It might help to be a bit proactive about those ones as well. If you’re getting lots of the same “why” questions over and over again, you could put some of them into a training or FAQ document as Alison suggests. But definitely don’t feel you have to interrupt your work for someone who wants to learn the theory behind it!

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I was coming here to say this. Generally, I get four types of emails from my reports:

      a) “hey, going on vacation next Tuesday.” Not urgent, not important = respond sometime before COB.
      b) “FYI, client wants me to do this, I recommended another solution, am following their direction but wanted you to know what was up.” Not urgent, but important = respond within a couple of hours to acknowledge.
      c) “Client has tasked me with this. Pretty sure it’s in scope, but please let me know.” Somewhat urgent, not that important. Respond within 30 min, unless super slammed.
      d) “FYSA, I need immediate evac and fire support, send chopper.” Urgent and important. Respond immediately. (With chopper.)

      1. Myrin*

        You seriously have the funniest comments, Not Mad. I laughed out loud at “(With chopper.)”! :D

        1. JessaB*

          And I am now picturing that instead of a toy helicopter Not So Mad has one of those slap the top onion choppers on their desk.

    2. spocklady*

      I was wondering about this too.

      If these are questions to help newer underlings develop their professional judgment, those can definitely wait, and some of them might be deal-with-able in chunks once a week at an all-hands meeting. On the other hand, if these are “The procedures are unclear/don’t make sense to me” questions, more/clearer documentation might help clear those up. Actually, that would probably help for folks who aren’t in your department, too.

      If these are questions dealing with gory historical “the way we’ve done things forever” procedural issues, it can be therapeutic to address those over beer/cocktails/your beverage of choice, if you can.

  11. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)*

    Also, you might want to google for the “important urgent matrix.” It helps you divide tasks into four quadrants:

    Urgent-Important – crises, pressing issues, deadlines
    Not Urgent-Important – preparation, planning
    Urgent-Not Important – most interruptions
    Not Urgent-Not Important – FYIs, excessive internet surfing

    Start figuring out where each part of your job lies, and then you can use that to plan the best way to use your time from day to day.

  12. Mike*

    I’ve seen workplaces that have little lights hooked up to the computer that displays their lync/skype status color.

    Green for available
    Yellow for away
    Red -busy/on a call/ etc
    Purple – Do not disturb

    I think it would work amazing if more workplaces adopted that.

    1. BlueWolf*

      Our workplace has that. I think it’s awesome because if it says someone is away or offline then you don’t spend time making unnecessary phone calls or sending emails when someone is clearly out of the office or at lunch or busy. Also, it’s helpful for our office in particular that has multiple floors so if you want to go to someone’s office you at least have a pretty good idea if they’re there or not before walking all the way down there.

  13. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Sometimes you really do need to shut out distractions and interruptions at work, and it’s okay to let people know you need to be out of pocket. I feel very fortunate to have worked in places where the occasional DND sign on a door or cubicle was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. One employer was so into empowering their associates (our CEO was a true Servant Leader) that associates at all levels could go on DND if they felt it was necessary. I can’t recall many people who thought this was odd except for the occasional new hire, and they quickly learned to respect and appreciate DND signs on doors or cubicles. I should point out that my supervisors had regular catch-up meetings or lunches with me, so I rarely needed to interrupt them, DND or otherwise.

    OP, I believe your team will appreciate you even more for setting a good example on how to effectively manage their workload and availability. Good luck!

  14. Busy manager too*

    A former colleague used to hang up a sign that said something like “You’re an awesome person and I’d love to talk to you! But not right now. I have a big project to finish and need some quiet time.”

    1. Cath in Canada*

      My former boss used to hang a sign on his office door when he was on deadline saying “go away”. I like your colleague’s way better.

      I also thought about making a sign to help people interpret his availability based on what type of music could be faintly heard through the door. “Most classical music = please enter; Bach = proceed with caution; AC/DC = run away”

    2. Drew*

      The one I use (and I’ve only used it a couple of times to avoid blunting its impact) is “I’m on deadline and cannot stop to chat. Please email and I’ll get back to you at my next natural break.” With a couple of judicious uses of red text to really convey the message.

      If I had a door, I’d tape it there; since I don’t, I tape it to the back of my monitor and to the shelf on my desk. If anyone comes up to me, I can point at the nearer one without stopping what I’m doing.

      I am also getting a lot better at telling chronic interrupters, “I need a couple of minutes to finish this thought. You can wait or come back.” Helps when I’m wearing my headphones and DO NOT remove them to say that.

  15. PlainJane*

    Love the suggestions here and in Alison’s response. I’ve succeeded with a few tactics over the years. I’ve established a work block at the same time each week and let my direct reports and colleagues know about it. “This is the time I set aside each week to focus on stuff; feel free to interrupt/schedule a meeting if it’s urgent, but if it can wait, please wait.” I work a compressed work week–4 10-hr days–and that gives me a couple of hours at the beginning and end of each day that tend to have few meetings and interruptions. I use those for stuff that requires extended concentration. I also look at my calendar for the next day and identify any times when I’m not booked. If I have an important deadline, I’ll block those off as focused work time. I’ve also occasionally taken a day or an afternoon to work at home if I absolutely have to get something done without interruptions.

  16. Mena*

    Alison’s last two bullets merit more prominence in the response. LW may not be facilitating the team’s independence. This volume of ‘need’ shouldn’t be ongoing (and over-whelming). Documentation and FAQs for sure; training and development too.
    And blocking work time and leaving staff without an immediate response may force them to problem-solve on their own (which it sounds like they don’t have to do now).

  17. BlueWolf*

    I’m on the opposite side of this (being an underling rather than a manager) and it is good to see things from this perspective. I’m sure my manager has other tasks she is working on, so I try not to ask questions unless I have already tried to figure it out on my own or if it is a weird situation and I want to make sure I’m not going against any internal guidelines/procedures (I’ve only been in my job about five months). And it’s usually only if my more experienced coworker is away from his desk or doesn’t know the answer either.

    Also, I’ve noticed my manager is not the most responsive to email (because I’m sure she gets a bazillion per day), so if it’s something quick I usually just ask in person. Sometimes email is better because you need to forward/include information from someone else or it’s easier to understand by looking at the information.

    I’d say just be honest if people approach you with questions. If you’re busy working on a project, just say so and ask them to come back a little later. I agree that emails aren’t necessarily always urgent (unless the subject says URGENT). If you are responding same day I think you’re probably ok, and if you think it will take longer than that to get back to them, at least give them a heads up or something.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “I’m sure my manager has other tasks she is working on, so I try not to ask questions unless I have already tried to figure it out on my own”

      This is something I’ve always tried to do as a minion and something I appreciate as a manager: push it as far as you can before you ask for guidance. It’s usually more productive on both sides if you can say, “So, I figured out X and Y, but I know I need Z, and I think I can do it this way, but I wanted to run it by you,” rather than saying “How do you do this?”

    2. Xarcady*

      Another thing I do is to try and batch questions up, so I’m only interrupting my manager once, instead of multiple times. Most of the time, answers can wait until I’m more or less finished what I’m doing. Then I get all the questions answered at once. If I have a work-stopping problem, I’ll get the answer to that right away, of course. But frequently, I can keep working, even if there is a small issue.

      I’ve noticed that there are people who really struggle with this. They can’t move on until a question is answered. And that tends to slow them down, as well as the person supervising them.

  18. Lily in NYC*

    My old boss used to hide in a one-person bathroom with his laptop to get away from people (we had plenty of other bathrooms).

  19. SM*

    One of my previous managers had a pair of over-the-ear headphones, with a rule that when the headphones were on she’s not to be interrupted. It worked out quite well because you could see her headphones from across the room and knew not to even bother getting up. She also had a pair of earbuds to wear when she wanted to listen to music but it was okay to inturrupt.

    I think sometimes she’d put the headphones on even without music playing just to signal to everyone she was in work mode.

  20. Mabel*

    Part of my job is supporting users who need help with our software. I’ve noticed that when I can’t get back to someone right away, I’d say about 50% of the time, they have resolved the issue by the time I contact them.

  21. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    This really jumped out at me:

    “The problem is that while I am working diligently to finish rush requests from clients, my team members find it difficult to understand that when I am trying to focus on these projects I do not have the time to answer their questions or talk them through their issues. I hate to be unapproachable, so I will typically still answer questions even though I’m already swamped.”

    Were you to tell them, “Can we revisit that tomorrow morning/later this afternoon/whatever? This is an important question and I’m happy to work through it with you, but today I’m really slammed with a bunch of rush requests and it’s a bad time,” I really don’t think that equates to being unhelpful or unapproachable. They don’t understand you don’t have the time because right now, you make the time. As Dan Savage always says: use your wooooorrrrrds.

  22. NW Mossy*

    I have a related challenge around a schedule that can easily become swallowed by meetings, so I make a point to schedule 2 half-hour blocks each day that just sit there. I also have a standing hour at lunch that’s set aside for a workout. I can move them around if need be, but their presence makes meeting-schedulers think “Oh, she’s busy then” and they’ll tend to find another timeslot that’s less hectic.

    Sometimes if I know I’ll have some focus work to do during one of those blocks, I’ll book a small conference room (we have lots, thankfully) and park in there with my laptop. I do this a lot for things like our performance-management system with how my team’s doing on their goals, web trainings, and other stuff that gets done more easily without interruption. People simply assume I’m in a meeting, and they’re right – it just so happens that I’m the only attendee.

    1. miss_chevious*

      I do this, too, not only for recurring appointments of “lunch” and “email” but also for specific projects as they come up. And when I have a new staff member (not too often here) I schedule a office hour, too, for the first six months or so when I am absolutely free to be interrupted so they don’t have to worry that they’re bugging me.

      1. NW Mossy*

        Scheduling for projects is a great idea too. One of my tactics is to look at next week’s meeting on Monday, see what deliverables I need to prepare for those meetings, and then schedule time this week to get them done. It’s dramatically reduced the amount of “oh !#%@% I forgot now I have to do this in a mad dash” in my life.

  23. Artemesia*

    A bunch of newbies and one expert really sets up the OP to handhold the newbies forever. If they were integrating one new person at a time then the norm that people are self sufficient would be clear; with all these newbies, the norm has become ‘why bother looking it up or figuring it out because OP will know.’ So you need to retrain them.

    Think about the common knowledge and create a FAQ or job aids. Make it clear to the group that everyone needs to be up on processes and procedures and that the job aids are there to be consulted if they run into a problem. Only if that is not sufficient should asking a peer and then the manager be an option. Make it clear when you do this that you have some block out periods for your own sensitive work that are only interrupted for genuine emergencies.

    But the focus should be on moving from a hand holding culture to a self sufficient one. It is always easier to ask someone than to do it yourself and circumstances and the OP’s availability and expertise have conspired to create this culture and it must be intentionally altered.

  24. Casuan*

    OP, it’s okay & necessary to block out your calendar for alone time. Because of how things have been, expect a transition period for all involved. We train others how to treat us & just now you need to retrain your entire team, including yourself. This might give you a little extra work at first, however the effort should pay off.

    Because your staff are all relatively new, there’s a delicate balance here. If you do block time out, consider doing so at 30 or 45 minute intervals, with a 15 or 30 minute availability. As you get more confidence in your staff you can expand that.

    These next 2 paragraphs might be over-stepping; if so, I’m sorry! I don’t know much about the law office culture.

    What tugs me from your email is that you mentioned how everything is important & time-sensitive & must be 100% accurate. In concept, this is true. In reality…
    whilst true, this is also problematic. If everything is important then nothing is important. Humans need to make mistakes to learn & if you’re doing the work just because you can’t trust someone else to get it done… that doesn’t help anyone. I do understand the inclination!!

    re client rush jobs: Are these always truly rush jobs or has the client been led to expect a quicker turnaround than is feasible?
    Is it possible that you’ve been doing things 125%, thus creating a new norm?
    Could your staff be so worried about getting something wrong that they ask you about everything to avoid making a mistake?
    Does your staff know that they’re not expected to do something as quickly as someone with more experience can do it? [If true] Do they know you’d rather they take an extra few moments to do & review their work than to submit inaccurate documents?

    As Alison suggested, if you notice the same types of questions, create a FAQ. Whether or not you FAQ or reply to direct queries, encourage one to find the answer on their own.
    Q: “How do I do [this]?”
    A: “This [C:/File/Folder/whatever.rtf] or [website] or Fergus has the information.”

    Could you you easily answer the question? Probably. However, that encourages one to think “I’ll just ask her for the answer & it’s quicker than looking it up.”
    Should you answer simple questions? It’s a judgment call. If you know the work is due in an hour & everyone is scrambling, then okay. Otherwise, you risk having no alone time for your own work & subliminally making your staff dependent on you for answers they can research for themselves.

    Expect a learning curve here. If someone wants to ask you a question, ask them to assess how urgent it is. If the answer is urgent, you can hear them out. When you respond [because they already asked the question] & tell them if it was or wasn’t as important as they thought.
    “You’re right, that was important. Glad you caught this, it could have caused problems.”
    “That is time-sensitive although not as urgent as it seems.”
    “So you know, this really isn’t what I consider urgent.”

    It’s perfectly reasonable to ask your staff to jot down non-urgent procedural questions & set a time during the week to reply to these. Someone suggested one-on-one meetings. I love this idea!

    As for emails, some of these same comments apply.

    I hope you get your alone time soon!!

  25. Thinking Outside the Boss*

    I think you’ll have more time to focus on your supervisorial duties if you delegate the day-to-day work back to your subordinates.

    This comment really caught me:
    “Often we get rush files from our clients, and because they need to be processed very quickly and with 100% accuracy, I will do them myself as to avoid my team members’ doing them incorrectly — or answering numerous questions that will come up if I rely on someone else to do them.”

    I’m a managing attorney in the public sector and I used to do this same thing. And it took me time to realize I wasn’t being a boss, I was doing front line work when that wasn’t my mission anymore. It’s a leap of faith that every supervisor and manager has to go through, but you need to train your subordinates to do this work, no matter how much easier it is to do it yourself. In the short run, it’s going to take more time, but once they’re trained, you’ll have more time to focus on your own work and you won’t be so overwhelmed.

    Also, there are two things I do that might help. First, when things are really busy at my work, I instituted my own 3-minute rule. It’s not a rule I hold my subordinates to, it’s self-imposed. If someone comes in for a quick question, I have a mental 3 minute clock running. If we can’t resolve the issue in 3 minutes, I ask them to meet later so I can clear a few things from my desk. I manage a group of 18 attorneys and 2 supervising attorneys, and this works well for me.

    Second, I applied that same rule to my document reviews. Not that I review the document in only 3 minutes (I wish!), but once I’ve reviewed a document, if there is a sentence or paragraph I don’t like, I ask whether I can rewrite it in 3 minutes. If I can, it’s a sign that my changes are really nonsubstantive and I just to it. If I can’t do it in 3 minutes, it goes back to the front line worker to rewrite it with general guidance from me.

    This all comes with the caveat that when things are slower and not as busy, I dispose of the 3 minute rule when it comes to conversations.

    But I’ve kept it when it comes to rewriting things because I should be preserving my employees’ voices in their work and they need to be able to meet our office’s standards on their own. I like to describe it to new supervisors as training the team to meet the office’s standards and not training them to do things the way I would do it. In the end, the work you get from people will be much better and you’ll learn a lot from them if you give them the freedom to do it their way!

    Best of luck to you and please keep us posted!

  26. Jess*

    Not so much in my current role, but at my last job my manager would sometimes be getting stuck into big-reports-with-deadlines, or an RFP or even just wanting time to brainstorm a new initiative, and it was quite normal for her to tell us that she was closing her door for an hour or two.

    Closed door=do not disturb except for emergencies, and that was all fine. Perfectly normal! I was quite happy to send her emails with questions or items for her attention knowing that they would be addressed when she had time.

  27. Matt*

    Oh yeah, “accessibility mantra” … this could be my workplace. I’m a software developer, one should think that the value of undisturbed high-concentration work was recognized among devs, but the first thing I learned on my first day was that you always have to answer your phone when it rings. (We don’t do customer support, it’s just internal communication!) It’s a mortal sin to ignore your phone while at your desk. And of course your coworkers phones in the same office if they are out. Everyone calls everyone about everything or drops by in person … it would be the dream of every “email is evil” proponent. I always try to get my coworkers to handle non-urgent things by email, but to no avail – if email is used at all, it’ s followed up by a phone call or a personal visit almost immediately …

  28. GermanGirl*

    We do a lot of teamwork at my office but also a lot of high concentration stuff. So we are available for questions / teamwork 9am-3pm and in do not disturb mode outside those hours. Since everybody has the same teamwork / do not disturb hours, this works pretty well for us. Of course you might want different hours. I’d imagine teamwork 10-12 and 15-17 and do not disturb the rest of the time would work well with so many juniors, so people can work for a bit and collect questions before going into teamwork mode and then repeat that process after lunch.

  29. Chickaletta*

    The good news is that as the manager, you have the authority to manage this. I think that you can still keep communication important, but don’t think of communication as being an assistant to your employees whenever they need it. Communication can also mean being communicative about *your* work needs and being clear about when you’re available for questions and when you’re not.

    That said, it’s concerning to hear that you don’t fully trust your employees to do their jobs, even the complicated parts. A good employee should be able to troubleshoot on their own. I agree with Alison that it’s worth it to look at ways you can empower your employees to handle problems without so much involvement from you.

  30. No more nonesense*

    I supervise one multifaceted project with several sub-projects involving about 20 people. At first I was getting interrupted ALL THE TIME and different people were coming by with the same questions. I started doing regular meetings with the different sub groups and that solved a lot of it (short daily meetings for some; longer weekly with others). I didn’t even have to set quiet hours or notify people id be unavailable – just knowing I would be available at certain times led to way fewer “quick questions”. I now can keep my door open but people generally just come by with more urgent things. Much more productive for all.

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