my coworkers interrupt me no matter what I’m doing

A reader writes:

I work in a small organization of about 25 people. I was promoted a few years ago. Now that I am the official conduit to the owner, the staff come to me to ask questions, throw around ideas, and chat about their lives. In most respects, this works fine. The owner and I make a good management team and the company is growing. The problem is that my colleagues all think that because they can see me, I am available for whatever they need. Managing them is not my full-time focus. I have mountains of other work I also need to do. Sometimes, I absolutely must put my head down and work.

I am struggling to communicate when I am available for help and when I am not. I have tried closing my office door, but they just come in anyway, often without knocking. I will sit with my back to the closed door when I am on a call with a client, and they still come in to talk to me, just lowering their voices when they see the phone in my hand. They interrupt my meetings with other staff members. They stop me if I walk past their office doors, regardless of whether I am walking to the copier or the bathroom. I have tried indicating that I am not available with phrases like, “Sorry, I am in the middle of something. Let’s chat when I am done” and “I am not available right now, as I am under a deadline. I will be free at 2.” These tactics rarely work.

When I say I’m not free, they usually keep talking. One or two will leave but then try to start the conversation again if they see me. They virtually never wait for me to come to them and they balk at setting specific times to chat.

I need to maintain the open communication and supportive environment that makes this company a great place to work, but I also need to get my work done.

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.

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    The benefit of having this conversation with the whole team is also that you can reinforce the fact that this is not just one “just a sec”, but is actual 10 or 15 “just a secs” every day.

    You can also start to figure out if there are other team members that are available to answer certain categories of questions, or resources that they can turn to for the answer.

    “I am on deadline and cannot talk about this now. The procedure manual is on line and should cover this question. If it doesn’t you can talk to Jane.”

    1. LTR FTW*

      I would add, since OP has her own office with a door, there could be some signage on her door to this effect as well. Maybe she can figure out a way to lock her door, too! One of those wedges you use in a hotel room might prevent some of the barging in.

      1. Jessica Ganschen*

        I’m currently imagining one of her coworkers encountering a locked and/or wedged shut door and resorting to sticking a hand under the door and wailing plaintively like a cat.

        1. Why Though*

          Our office was under construction and the correct sized doors were backordered, so some doors that were too short were installed as a temporary measure – there was a good 4″ gap at the bottom, and I watched someone once get down on the floor and put her entire face under the door to see if the person in the office was in a meeting…. sigh.

        2. OhNoYouDidn't*

          Having signs on our door for uninterrupted time was the norm in our office (which could get very social even though we were incredibly busy). Most people used a sign that said something like, “Do Not Disturb. Thank you,” or, “Focus Time,” or something like that. It was VERY rare that people interfered with that.

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            When I was under a monthly deadline posting AP for the book month I would have a sign explaining the deadline and ‘please talk to me after 4 pm’. That was usually quite helpful.

      2. Chocoholic*

        I have locked my office door before when I’m in there to prevent people from opening it and coming in. I had one person in particular who would just open the door when I was trying to interview candidates, and she stopped doing it when I put a sign on the door that I was in an interview.

      3. Csethiro Ceredin*

        I stick one of those jumbo post its on the door when I am in a meeting that says “meeting in progress.”

        And I have one that says NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON PARTY BUSINESS (in the appropriate Sharpie calligraphy) which I use when I’m immersed in an important project. That might be too quirky for some offices, though.

        1. dryakumo*

          If I had my own office I would 100% be borrowing this idea! As it is, I have some great calligraphy on order to decorate my desk. One says “Needs More Spreadsheets,” another says “Did You READ The Email?” and the last “Do Good Recklessly.” I can’t wait until they arrive!

        2. Anonymous*

          If you’re going to use the “NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON PARTY BUSINESS” sign, I think you need to put a stack of presents outside your door, with passive-aggressive notes on them addressed to your most annoying coworkers.

      4. Gigi*

        The signs work for me, especially when I include a time that they can expect the door open again.

      5. Environmental Compliance*

        I’ve used signage at my old office space where this was a constant (like every 10 minutes) and never for anything relevant. It only partially worked. Then I even color coded. It worked marginally better.

        Then I locked my door when I was not to be interrupted. That worked. Especially after the first one literally faceplanted into the door after ignoring the sign (at eye level!!!!). Invariably the person would try to open the door, blue screen at the door not opening, look at me slightly panicked, then finally see the big red DO NOT DISTURB sign, and mouth “oh okay later then”.

        My office now is much, much quieter and more remote to everything else, plus my door is now solid wood – with a little window next to it. Heaven.

      6. Anne Shirley*

        Something tells me this crew would ignore signs and talk to the OP through the door, sigh.

      7. amanda*

        I used to have a similar problem, and I had decent luck with a “please email me, instead” post-it, right at eye level, on the closed door.

  2. Angstrom*

    Also: Why does the staff have so many questions, and why are they all coming to you for the answers? Are there ways you can improve the information flow in the office so that people don’t have to come to you to solve all of their problems?

    1. pally*

      I’m betting they all go to the OP because it is easier. Easier than looking something up or contacting someone or asking their manager.

      Been there done that.

      1. pope suburban*

        I agree. And it’s horrible, and I feel for our letter writer deeply. It’s not just irritating, it’s sort of dehumanizing to be treated like you’re Siri or an Amazon Alexa.

      2. AnonInCanada*

        100% this. My favourite is when I have coworkers mutter “I didn’t see that” when they barge into my office with the big “DO NOT DISTURB” sign directly at eye level to them as they approach the door. To which I respond “let me book you with an eye doctor.” SMH.

        The problem is simple: your coworkers feel entitled to instant gratification, and don’t want to keep a to-do pad to write down and keep track of things. It’s time to take that entitlement away, tell them “email me and I’ll respond when I have a moment,” and rinse and repeat as required. It won’t solve all your problems, but it’ll help mitigate most of them.

        1. HonorBox*

          Your second paragraph is spot on. And it makes me smile because it reminds me of a good friend’s outgoing VM message. He said, “I’m not available to take your call but at MY earliest convenience, I’ll gladly return your call.” Subtle, but also reminding people that there are other priorities.

        2. Orv*

          I often tell coworkers, “I can take care of that, but could you email me about it so I don’t forget?” After a while they tend to take the hint and just email me to start with. A bonus is that it automatically gives me their name if I’m having trouble recalling it. (I’m terrible at matching names to faces.)

      3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I’m betting they all go to the OP because it is easier.

        Or because there are no written sources to reference. That’s the nightmare I live.

        1. Whyamihere*

          Same here. We have one manager who knows all the tricks but they are not written down. So yeah we need to talk to her and messaging her never works because she get so many messages.
          My industry has a lot of tribal knowledge

            1. MigraineMonth*

              It’s also a guarantee you will be bothered whenever you’re out, though.

              “I know you’re having your appendix removed as we speak, but I had one question about the A1Z forms…”

      4. Orv*

        I had an IT job like that. And I had 12 different locations to handle, to boot. If I needed to go to a different one or just go to lunch I used to sneak out the rear fire exit.

        1. Ellie*

          My old manager used to book a meeting room just for himself, and disappear in there with his laptop whenever he needed to get any work done. I and a couple of other people knew he was there, but no-one else did, so when people dropped by, he was ‘in a meeting’.

    2. KatieP*

      That was my question. Either the staff needs training to know the answers (or where to find them), or empowerment to make rank-appropriate decisions. That might cut-down on a lot of interruptions. Also, maybe look at how information is organized and shared – can you make it where it’s easier to find the answers themselves, than to ask LW?

      Also, if LW supervises any of the employees, I would probably change the communication from, “I need you to do X,” to, “I expect you to do X.”

    3. cabbagepants*

      The fact that people talk over LW when she says she can’t talk tells me that at least some of the people just see LW as an answer dispenser, not as a person with her own work. They want the answer NOW and it currently costs them nothing to barge in on LW.

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I agree! I see two problems in this letter; the first is the unmitigated gall of the employee population in continuing to barge past every social signal of “go away”, and that 25 people are coming to one person for information flow. That’s a lot of people! Sounds like it’s time for some delegation and un-flattening of the structure.

      One other thing that I’ve found useful – have a “tiny questions” or similar slack/teams channel where people can crowdsource info. Pin a couple of relevant documents at the top if necessary (employee manuals, process guides, etc) and then people can ask “Hey, does anyone know where the info for Client Y is supposed to go?”

      1. MigraineMonth*

        We should set this up in my office! One person has 80% of the institutional knowledge, and every time they’re out for a day or two it’s chaos.

        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          It’s especially nice since it can turn into something of an unofficial FAQ page – the next time someone needs to figure out where Client Y’s info needs to go, they can check back through the channel and see if it was previously asked. Or alternately if the same question gets asked multiple times it’s a good sign that either some more training is needed or that it needs to be documented better somewhere.

      2. Jessica*

        I’m not sure if this LW has the authority to do this, but a nice add-on would be the development of an FAQ: every time I answer a question for you, you are in charge of writing up my answer and adding it to the FAQ. If you don’t get it done, no more answers for you.

    5. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      I used to have a sign up with a flow chart that said:

      I’m busy right now. Are you on fire? [And then two lines going to yes and no]:
      No: then please come back later. I’m busy.
      Yes: then please put yourself out and come back later. I’m still busy.

      1. Pdweasel*

        Reminds me of my “Nice Stops at Midnight” policy in college, wherein I reserved the right to be a complete A-hole if disturbed between midnight and 6 AM. Unless the dorm was on fire, there was a tornado warning, or someone was about to die, it waited.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          I used to have a ‘is it blood or fire’ requirement for my teens to interrupt me some of the time at home.

    6. Artemesia*

      I bet part of it is the attempt to curry favor with the boss — the LW is access and viewed as being the one who shapes the boss’s view of them and so they want social time with the LW to form a firmer bond. Any excuse.

    7. I'm Just Here For The Cats!!*

      To me, it sounds more like the OP is the way to reach the boss and if they have any ideas etc they just go to the OP. I wonder if they could have set specific times where they are available for drop in’s like this.

  3. SomethingElse*

    It might be less obvious in a non-tech office or in a place where people all work in person, but this is why office chat systems like Slack exist. Chat systems allow you to implement headphone rules (if you see someone with a headset on, assume they are concentrating and slack first), and allow people to acknowledge questions later, or ask them in a group chat without bothering someone in particular.

    I agree that it sounds like a flow of information problem as well. Perhaps there needs to be more delegation and documentation.

    Also, if management isn’t your main job, maybe you need to hire a person who people management is their main position, it may help with the coordination.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I work in a large office 3 days in person. In my pod of about 10 people, I sit diagonal to someone that’s an interrupter. My back is usually to them, but they’ll always try to find a way to get my attention for the DUMBEST things. Questions they can find the answers to! It doesn’t matter to them that I have my headphones on or that they could message me on Teams.

      This person got their feelings hurt when I politely, but bluntly, asked them to stop interrupting me -_-

    2. feathersflight*

      Some interruptors can be bad even with chat/messaging. They’ll send a message or five and then, when you don’t reply promptly, come to you in person anyway.

  4. Turingtested*

    I had a coworker like that, everyone bugged her constantly. She tried being polite, closing her door, blocking out time on her calendar, enlisting higher ups and nothing worked. Finally she lost it and shouted “For the next 2 hours you can only bug me if you’re dead and if you’re dead I can’t help you!”

    Somehow that made everyone realize oh wow she actually can’t get anything done with everyone constantly bothering her. Obviously not super professional but that poor woman was pushed to it.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      To be honest, they weren’t being very professional either. Sometimes you gotta fight fire with fire.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I have had success with a sign that says “NO” in the biggest of letters.

      It’s the nuclear option, but sometimes that’s what is needed.

    3. Marna Nightingale*

      I have actually replied “only if there’s blood, fire, or both” when people ask if they can interrupt me.

      1. Pippa K*

        A surgeon of my acquaintance once responded to a “yes, there’s bleeding!” interruption (child with a minor scrape) with “but is it *arterial* bleeding? No? Meh, you’ll be fine.”

        1. anonymous for this*

          Tis our lot in life:
          My father is a physician and I walked around with a fractured elbow and a concussion for at least a few hours after he picked me up from school on his day off because there was “blood but not a lot of blood”. I got to finally go get an x-ray when I started crying because the TV, at a very low volume, was hurting my head and my arm’s range of motion was decreasing. It was a pre-cell phone adventure, and my mother was unamused when she got home from work late that night to find that we were just getting home from the hospital.

          1. Anonny Muss*

            I’m so sorry but how could he think that blood was the only indicator of an injury’s severity?
            Making you wait around like that was really shitty of him.
            It makes me wonder how he treats non-family member patients. Oftentimes it’s already ridiculously hard to get adequate care from a doctor (esp as a woman or minority).

  5. saskia*

    I used to work in an open office where people would literally line up to speak with the manager, who sat at an open desk in the corner. The work required a high degree of concentration and also spawned a lot of random questions of varying importance. The manager got interrupted so often and was so time-crunched daily that she barely even ate lunch.
    If she was busy with a task and truly couldn’t be interrupted, she would straight-up ignore people — no response whatsoever if you tried to ask her anything without her turning to you first. No eye contact, no acknowledgement. Once she turned, you had her full attention, so it was worth the wait. But until then, people would just stand silently in line or leave because, after standing there a while, they had time to think and realized they could find the answer a different way. If she let everyone ask their questions, she would have very little time to do her own work. Sometimes you need to just draw a line.

  6. Medium Sized Manager*

    I recently had this conversation with my direct report who would message me and be visibly frustrated if I didn’t respond right away (or if it was clear that she didn’t have my full attention). We set the expectation that I would explicitly call out when I couldn’t give her my attention (instead of giving her a fast response that answered her question without explaining my thoughts) and she would be in charge of determining the next steps:

    Urgent and time-sensitive: Set up a meeting on my calendar
    Time-sensitive but can wait ~24 hours: Send an email outlining her problem, concerns, and proposed solution (this aligns best with my personal workload and inbox)
    Not time-sensitive: pin it for our 1:1 (every other week).

    We also implemented a plan for situations where I can give a quick answer but not answer any follow-up questions which follows the rough plan above. It has been really valuable and led to better feedback from her because she knows it’ll be truly heard.

    It’s much harder with a full team but it might be worth a try if you can spare the extra time in your calendar (ala office hours). I’d also recommend blocking out time on your calendar for the extra visibility as they get used to it – it will help you ensure you are truly building time for your personal responsibilities and responsibilities to support the team.

    Good luck!

      1. Galadriel's Garden*

        I had to implement office hours in my role as a commercial ops manager who liaises between internal and external stakeholders. One particular sales team, god love ’em, were just *bombarding* my inbox with constant questions and requests, and it got to a point where I basically got on one of their weekly team calls and said something to the effect of, “Look, you all ask great questions, but there are 18 of you and one of me and if you would like me to answer your non-critical questions, like, ever, please jump on my office hours that I host every Wednesday.” Between that, a tracker for a specific process, and an intake form for larger project-type work, it’s actually worked remarkably well. Everyone feels heard, and it’s honestly helped foster better relationships since I’ll keep the Zoom link open the whole hour and am willing to stay on and chat since I keep the time carved out deliberately every week.

        Now if only I could somehow do the same for our external partners…

    1. Stripes*

      I was about to say that working all WFH/virtual exacerbates this issue for me. I like how you outlined urgency/responses – I have TRIED the same with one of my DRs, but she still sends me messages and gets upset when there’s not an answer within an hour (and she doesn’t even ask questions!). I’ve tried to say “Hey, your weekly 1:1 is a great time to ask questions that may need context and more discussion – why don’t you add this to your 1:1 document?” but she apparently only edits her document the afternoon before her meeting.
      When I told her that I have to prioritize the messages I get on Slack, she said “I can’t believe you told me I wasn’t a priority! I would never say that to someone I manage!” …and I don’t want to say explicitly “I get messages from the VP and yes, those take priority over you” but she’s clearly not getting the message…and likely not managing her own team well. headdesk.

      1. Csethiro Ceredin*

        That’s a very inappropriate thing to say to you! I think you should absolutely tell her that you have to prioritize work coming form higher up and that it’s not viable for her to expect you to drop everything. This is not telling her she is not a priority, it’s saying that specific work is not a priority, and she is personalizing it very strangely.

      2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        It’s time to be explicit: Yes, the VP gets faster responses than almost everyone. Help your report figure out that it’s not personal, and you would give the same answer to anyone who isn’t the VP. Your report is making it personal (feelings-based) instead of seeing the business aspects.

      3. Polly Hedron*

        I don’t want to say explicitly “I get messages from the VP and yes, those take priority over you”

        Say just that. Your hints aren’t working.

        1. Ellie*

          I wouldn’t say that, but then the politics where I work may be different to yours. No-body likes getting kicked out of a meeting room that you may have spent hours organising multiple people for, to make way for the CEO/VIP. Everyone knows their time is more important, yes, but its still a slap in the face to the busy people who are working their tails off. Can’t you just explain that some messages are more time sensitive, and that you will give her your attention when you can carve out a proper time for it? Some relationships need a bit of massaging, its not the worst thing to have to deal with.

          PS: working from home solved this problem for me, I go offline if I’m on deadline, and deal with the messages in a big chunk at the end of the day. If I can’t work from home, I let people know I’ll be unavailable, and if that fails, book a meeting room just for me.

      4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        She’s coasting awfully close to “not showing me love and support” employee we just read about.

      5. Medium Sized Manager*

        Echoing the others, you may want to be more direct. You can also take action on the conversations that require more detail (Excellent question. I have jotted it down to discuss in our 1:1 when you have my full attention).

        One thing that also works in my favor is that I am a very responsive person all the time (I truly hate notifications), so I have the rep of “if I am not responding, I am truly busy.” Can you try carving out certain times to connect with this DR while you are getting them used to managing priorities? Acknowledging messages sooner even just to say that you can’t look at this until x? I am wondering if their issue stems from the perception that they never have your attention. It might be a generous assumption about your DR but worth exploring.

        And if it truly is “I must get a response immediately forever,” well. No. Just not feasible!

  7. Sara without an H*

    I agree with Alison’s advice, but I’m also wondering if there are some organizational issues here that need to be looked at.

    LW, is your organization really that flat? The way you you describe it, it sounds as though it’s the owner, then you, then 25 direct reports? If that’s true, then you need to look at restructuring. Would it be possible to appoint team leads or lead workers, who can deal with some of the questions, rather than having everyone come to you? I know everybody claims to hate hierarchy, but it sounds as though your organization has grown to the point that you need to look at creating a little more structure.

    1. Momma Bear*

      I agree. Not only should OP delegate for their own work/life balance, but if other people do not know/are not empowered to find out information, and OP gets eaten by bears, then what? Not just “don’t bother me” but see what’s behind it and what needs to change – team leads, stand up meetings, SOPs, office hours, etc.

    2. Kevin Sours*

      That struck me as well. When I saw: “Managing them is not my full-time focus.” the immediate question was “Who is and why aren’t they doing it?” Because, ultimately, if people are dead in the water because they need manager level feedback or sign off there is only so long they *can* wait. There needs to be managerial availability to meet the needs of the workplace and if OP can’t be the one to do that then that’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

      1. obscure*

        I often deal with a micromanager who doesn’t trust their staff to delegate. This creates a structural issue where their need to be intricately involved in all decisions is not just a huge managerial roadblock that holds up all other work, but also creates a never ending stream of people lining up outside the door—Because it’s much, much easier to deal with an annoyed, overburdened manager on the front end than to get chewed out later.

        I don’t mean to imply that has to be the case with OP, but it may be worth looking at if staff are being empowered to make appropriate decisions in their roles. How often are repeat questions happening from the same people? Have you indicated you need to officially clear things before they happen? Are your staff able to access you other ways (email, slack) or have you indicated you prefer in-person communication? If you have alternative forms of contact, are they appropriately responsive?

        Alternately, are all the questions totally appropriate things you need to be informed of but you are just truly managing way too many people?

        I think only OP could answer these questions, but I wanted to mention it because this post definitely could have been written by a manager I know!

        1. Kevin Sours*

          Perhaps. And you can have issues with people not feeling empowered even without being a micromanager. Sometimes people seek approval when it isn’t needed and if you never tell them they don’t have to, they’ll keep doing it. But twenty odd reports is *alot* for somebody who isn’t a full time manager.

          OP needs to take a hard look at what people are coming to her for and figure out what doesn’t need to and what can be directed to other people.

          Because I’m ultimately concerned that this isn’t so much a culture issue as it is a problem of shoving 10 pounds of stuff in 5 pound bag. If the only way to get what you need to do your job is to cross boundaries and there is pressure to meet deliverables then ultimately boundaries are getting crossed.

  8. Turquoisecow*

    I wonder if there’s some work or expertise that OP can delegate. Should she be focusing more on management and less on the many other tasks that she’s being interrupted for and/or can some of those tasks be delegated to someone else? I know it’s a small company but it’s still not great to have one (very busy) manager be essential to the point that they’re interrupted constantly like OP describes. Maybe some of the questions she’s getting can or should be answered by other people, but people are so used to going to OP for this stuff.

  9. ferrina*

    In addition to the other tactics, I’d set up a regular coffee time with some of the people. These people should be key managers, information holders, and the other people that make the office go round. That way these people know that they have regular face time with LW, and they don’t need to interrupt LW to make it happen. It can also make it easier for LW to say “So sorry, can’t chat now, looking forward to our coffee chat next week!”

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Or even just open office hours. Our training department used to get random communications and visits all day every day. They finally just said “2-4 every Tuesday”. If you ask a question during that time, you get an answer. If you ask it outside of that time, you probably won’t.

  10. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    They are not respecting boundaries which means it is working for them to not respect the boundaries. If they come in the office with the door shut, escort them back out and shut the door again. It is time to stop expecting them to pick up on hints.

    If you say that you are not available until 2 and they keep talking it is because they know you will not enforce the boundary.

  11. Some Dude*

    I’d just start being crass.

    Me: *walks past cube*
    Coworker: Hey can you help me with…
    Me: Sorry, I’m busy right now. I’ll check in with you later.
    Coworker: So, the flim flam…
    Me: Sorry, I really need to shit. *walks away*

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      I’m picturing the “Me: Sorry, I really need to shit. *walks away*” as you walk into your office and shut the door, lololol.

    2. cabbagepants*

      The trick here is to ***keep walking***!!! You can smile and act so sorry that you can’t talk… but oops, seems that I’m being propelled along by my pesky legs, I guess we really can’t talk now!

  12. La Triviata*

    In an old terrible job, there was one person who would ignore my closed office door and just come in without even knocking. As a rule, I would only close the door if I was doing something that didn’t allow interruptions or, occasionally, I’d be changing clothes (mostly pantyhose). It got to the point that, in order to close the door and change, I’d put my guest chair in front of the door and sit in it. She would still try to force the door open with me blocking the door. She never changed and eventually I changed jobs.

  13. 123*

    “When I say I’m not free, they usually keep talking.”

    This confuses me. Why does OP allow them to continue? At a minimum my response would be, “Excuse me, but I just told you I’m busy and I’ll talk to you later.” If someone just blatantly ignored me and kept talking I’d probably escalate to four-letter words.hen I say I’m not free, they usually keep talking. “When I say I’m not free, they usually keep talking. “

  14. Alex*

    This is only sort of related, as I am not a manager, but I work in a customer-facing role where customers walk in and approach me for assistance. 80% of the time, they are the only ones there and so them walking up and starting to talk to me is fine. But I find it astonishing how often people will walk up and start talking to me while I’m on the phone, or while I’m helping another customer. And the irritation when they are not immediately helped! Like the thought they might have to wait five minutes because someone is in front of them has never crossed their minds.

  15. Marna Nightingale*

    Oh, Lord, the dreaded “Oh, sorry, I just wanted to ask you something real quick…” when you say you’re busy and can’t talk.

    Somehow in their heads, that’s polite because they said “sorry” and not really interrupting because they said “just” and “real quick”. So they just keep talking.

    The hardest part is, at least in my case, my concentration is shot as soon as someone says “hey, can I interrupt you?” so in the short term it feels easier to go ahead and deal with whatever it is rather than have to, effectively, be interrupted by whatever it is twice. But it’s not sustainable.

    Noise-cancelling headphones are the best solution I’ve found for this. Some people will still come wave their hands in front of your face, or God forbid touch you, but at least those are actual norm violations that you can flatly forbid unless there is blood, fire, or the professional equivalent involved.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Ha, that is 100% truth.
      No I want to reply with , “no offense, but when I tell you I can’t talk and you keep talking you are being rude.”
      I said no offense!

    2. Lurkers R Us*

      I WFH full-time and my husband is retired. I’ll clearly be engrossed in something and he’ll walk into my workspace and say, “Can I interrupt?”

      I so want to say, “You just did, so go ahead.” And I do. On the inside.

  16. This_is_Todays_Name*

    It sounds like part of the problem is you used to be their peer coworker and they’re still kinda treating you like one of the buddies, as well as the “conduit to the big boss.” When you meet with the team, I’d use Alison’s excellent script and also explicitly say, “Non-time-sensitive matters can often best be addressed over IM or email, as well. If you feel like we need to talk face to face about any and all questions or issues, please let me disabuse you of that notion. I will respond to emails, often more quickly than waiting for me to become physically available” or something to that effect.

    Side story, at one of my program offices a few years ago, the 2 PMs that shared an office would put up a “MEN AT WORK” sign like you’d see in a construction zone, when they didn’t want to be disturbed. I made another smaller sign that I put under it saying, “Women are always working; men have to announce it when they are.” Fortunately they both had a good sense of humor and actually left it up for quite a while.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Yes, the buddy with connections. “Hey, you can get me some facetime, right?”

  17. Desert girl*

    I worked somewhere that had door hangers (kind of like hotels) that people could hang on their office doors and even meeting rooms that read “Do not disturb”. I wonder if you could do something like that. Maybe a little more friendly like “Come on in” when you don’t mind people stopping in with questions or to chat. Obviously I think you need to revisit the reasons why they are stopping in with questions or maybe get some others at the company to be able to answer questions. But this may help in the mean time.

    1. Petty_Boop*

      Hmm I have one shaped like a little baby sleeping on a pillow that says “Shhhh the baby is sleeping;” I wonder if I could repurpose that…. :)

      1. Chocoholic*

        I saw one I liked that was on somebody’s front door. It was a baby sleeping on a pillow that said “you wake him, you take him!” lol

    2. Csethiro Ceredin*

      A colleague had one that said “nobody gets in to see the wizard!” which always amused me.

    3. Pyanfar*

      Because I keep my door closed so that I can keep my office much warmer than the rest of the building, I made a set for my door, green oval that says “Come on in”, red octagon “In a meeting, do not disturb” and blue arrow “Running an errand, back soon”

      1. Mrs. Pommeroy*

        I like this a lot because it shows both when you are *not* available for questions but also when you *are*! Which can help set a better understanding of when you are actually available, vs create the impression that you are always unavailable as a simple “Do not disturb” sign might.

  18. NeedRain47*

    In addition to saying when you’re not available, you need to emphasize when you *are* available and encourage people to speak to you then.

  19. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    Same for me. Even if I’m on a Zoom call and I put “DND Zoom call ” on my window. It ranges from, “have you ever ordered sandwiches from the deli,” and the ever popular, “Well it’s just easier to ask you,” about a protocol/procedure in our company. Well, it USED to be, that is.

  20. Prorata*

    Claymore Mines. And a Czech Hedgehog.

    Manager needs to issue an edict to the effect of “you will knock and be recognized before entering this office; failure to do so will result in immediate termination”, then fire the first wanker who violates.

    Ok, a bit much…but as a manager who has asked staff to please allow me time to carry out critical, time sensitive tasks dropped on my desk by higher, and been told in response that higher has given them permission to interrupt me whenever they need to…..well, what are you gonna do??

    Twelve-hour days, that’s what you’re going to do, if you are lucky.

  21. Caz*

    Something I did many years ago when I was in a similar situation (I was not a manager, but I was the only onsite admin and de facto knowledge base for all questions) was to pu a sign on my office door saying something like “Please do not disturb, working hard, I will be available at “. There were rules attached to this approach, which were agreed with my manager – the biggest being that I didn’t have the sign up for more than 2 hours at a time. I never needed it for that long, because having that uninterrupted time meant I could power through so much work. I didn’t put it up unless I needed to, and people respected it at least 95% of the time.

    1. Caz*

      To add: The 5% were people who would ask me questions any time, regardless of what I was doing. Up to and including in the bathroom.

  22. The ways of the world*

    People used to walk into my office all the time without knocking (or opening the door while knocking at the same time, which is no better). We have to wear a uniform when we go visit certain sites but not otherwise. There is a locker room but I’d rather just change in my own office (which I don’t share so it’s just me). I told people that I might be changing so they should knock, but it didn’t make any difference. But after a couple of times that people walked in on me while I was changing clothes, I guess word got around because no one does that anymore, even people who just got hired!

    I also put up a sign taped to the doorknob that says “I am in a zoom meeting until 1pm.” Sometimes there is no meeting but people seem to respect that and don’t knock until after 1pm. But I think you have to put an end time that’s within an hour or two, because otherwise people will think you’ll never be available in their preferred time frame, and then they’ll knock.

    I would say, though, that the LW is equating all interruptions. There’s a big difference between trying to get someone’s attention as they walk past your door (which I think is completely ordinary and expected), and walking into an office with a closed door and then not leaving (which is very weird IMO).

    1. Michelle Smith*

      I don’t agree that it’s completely ordinary and expected to try and get someone’s attention just because they are walking past your door. LW should be able to feel comfortable that they can go to the bathroom, break room, vending machine, whatever, throughout the day without having to worry about being stopped and held by a coworker to answer their questions. It would be exhausting to have this happen every time you left your office, which is what it sounds like LW is experiencing.

    2. Ricama*

      I’m busy, put it in an email.
      It’s just a quick question.
      Then it’ll be a short email, close the door on your way out.

  23. BatManDan*

    Some sort of shared calendar or online calendaring program. With limited availability.

  24. Coin Purse*

    I had a similar situation in my last job. My boss oversaw 8 licensed vicuña wranglers but was not a licensed wrangler himself. If anyone went to him with anything related to skilled wrangling, he sent them to me, the most senior license holder. This led to 10-20 interruptions in a day.

    I made up info flow sheets for the most common questions. That helped eliminate about 75% of the interruptions. I also kept a list of famous wrangling situations we’d been in by case number so I could say “read #8675309 and you’ll see how to approach this”. Then the remaining issues were easier to tolerate.

    However creating this self serving moat took time so it wasn’t seamless.

  25. Sharon*

    Once when I was really needing to concentrate on something, I put caution tape like they use for construction sites across my door – it was really effective! But I agree with others that you need to start enforcing your boundaries, coupled with letting people know when you ARE available. Maybe have open door hours 2x/day to start?

  26. Recovering the satellites*

    All this will work 98% of the time. But some offices have psychos.

    Like in my office, because OF COURSE.

    Before it downsized, I had 45 full time DR’s, about 20 part timers, and a remote head office filled with another 25 or so people who all felt entitled to my time because it was always “for just 1 minute”. Spoiler alert, it was never just a minute.

    The 60 or so folks on site with me did not work with computers and breaks were scheduled by groupings so I never got a scheduled break or lunchtime slot.

    Between everyone altogether I did not even get a minute to pee most days.

    One day I bought a locking doorknob and installed it myself on my office door. But you guessed it, even that was not enough to give some people a damn clue.

    The worst person peeked at me through the window while jiggling the knob while knocking, even though I was on a call. Didn’t matter if I had a sign up saying it was a call with the CEO.

    When that failed to gain my submission, they would get *others* to message me and tell me that person needed to talk to me. It was always for something inane without fail.

    This lead to 70 hour work weeks just to keep up, without overtime pay.


  27. Office Drone*

    I had the opposing problem at a previous job. My director (there was no manager in-between) was never available… to anyone. He traveled extensively, then when he was in the office could be closeted for hours with anyone who happened to catch him first. He wasn’t accessible by phone (except to family, for whom he’d interrupt meetings even for non-urgent matters) and he wasn’t timely in returning emails. It got to the point that you had to waylay him in the halls and pop into his office to get any time with him.

    What he needed, and what the LW might want to consider, is a gatekeeper. If the company is growing, an executive assistant for the LW (and their boss) might be a good investment in sanity.

  28. ElenaSSF*

    I was one of a half dozen IT programmers on a crunch project. What worked for me was to put up police lines do not cross yellow tape across my cubicle entrance when I was working on something that required total focus. That was nine a m until noon most days, But since once the tape was down after lunch I reamed through my inbox people got used to it, and it became an office joke rather than an office problem.

  29. MondayMonday*

    It sounds like you also need to delegate who else can answer questions in the office.
    In my old role, I had a reference manual of sorts. If someone came to me to ask a question I would 1) ask if it was in the manual and 2) if it was not, they needed to add it for future reference.
    It stopped a lot of questions that were already documented. AND if someone said it was in the manual, but they didn’t understand it, I had them update that part to make it clearer to them because maybe someone else on the team didn’t understand.

  30. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    When my son was small, Christmas kept getting earlier and earlier until one year when we had opened all of the presents by 5:30 am.
    The next year I explained that he was not to wake me up before 6:00 am, showed him on both of our clocks. Told him that for every minute BEFORE 6 am that he woke me, he would need to wait for 5 minutes as penalty.

    Guess what 8 year old figured out that math in a stinkin’ hurry. Came in at 6:05, just to be on the safe side.

    “Dear colleagues. My door is closed until 2:00. Anyone who interrupts me for anything other than actual fire, flood, or blood before that time is welcome to return at 3:00. Office hours for others will begin at 2:01.”

  31. EtTuBananas*

    I once shared an office with a GREAT manager who put a sign on our door for when it was closed. One side had a hilarious picture of her youngest child (a toddler) scowling, and the other side had a picture of the same daughter smiling and holding a daisy.

    If the door was closed and the scowling picture was up, it meant “please don’t come in.” If the door was closed but interruptions were okay (perhaps we were trying to control airflow, or listening to music on a speaker instead of headphones) we used the daisy picture. It was VERY effective.

  32. Raida*

    Don’t underestimate the power of holding up a hand.
    One finger if you want someone to hold on a moment, or a flat ‘stop’ hand if you want more:

    “Hi Person, Gary and Sue and I were talking about the photocopier pidgeonholes and-”
    Stop Hand “Put it in an email, I’m busy right now.”
    and if they try to keep going bring the hand back up with “No, I’m not available right now.”

    Do NOT apologise.

    Also – you’re trying to train people with A) no consequences and B) no parameters?
    Who cares that your door is closed? You don’t kick people out, and you never had a meeting to lay down rules such as “If my door is closed, knock. If I don’t answer or I say “Busy” then leave.”

    Also, considering this is a jumble of stuff that feels like it’s all the time – blocking out every day an hour (or two) that’s Do Not Interrupt time which is on your calendar, on your door, and everyone is told about can help – in addition an Open Office time slot every day helps to shift focus to when you’re ready and waiting for any and allcomers.

    You can set this up as part of an overall review of ways we work, organisation, what works for me doesn’t work for you, flags on monitors, encouraging focus times, etc. So that it’s clear you are in fact *offering* all staff the opportunity to really think about what works for them, and see you putting it in action as a demonstration yourself.

    1. Raida*

      adding to this – you can show off approaches like the “fill the page” where instead of coming to you with some thing every day ‘for just a minute’ you expect people to come to you with at least four items, which they’ve written down with context, and knowing they’ll need to wait to talk to you (obviously the urgent/important thinking is needed here too) maybe they have already found another solution that didnt’ involve you.

      This, combined with an hour every morning when you encourage people to come on in will mean the time together will be more focussed, less spread out, and staff will *see* just how many little things are coming at you all the time if they have to wait their turn with a half-dozen questions/ideas.

      this will help quantify all this, and perhaps a VA could be brought on board to channel them through to quantify how much actually needs you and how much is choosing the easy path and how much is repetitive and can be directed by the VA to the correct source.

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