how do I interrupt my boss in person when I need something?

A reader writes:

I’ve found myself in several situations now where I periodically need to show up at my bosses’ office to ask them something. These are high level people at the top of the organization. Sometimes I can email or text them and get a response (but not consistently), but their offices are near mine and generally they don’t have a problem with me popping in.

I always stress so much about this though. Sometimes they’re meeting with someone or on the phone, so I leave them alone. Sometimes I don’t realize they’re in a virtual meeting (with the door open) until I’ve already stepped into the room. Generally I just feel nervous interrupting them because they could be in the middle of something. Sometimes I wait and wait and then miss my chance because they left their office.

Do you have any advice?

I can promise you that your managers are used to people doing it and it’s not weird — especially since they’ve encouraged you to!

Here’s how you do it:

* If you go to their office and they’re in a meeting or on the phone, don’t linger. Try again later. (Unless it’s a true emergency that you know they would want to be interrupted for.)

* If they’re not in a meeting or on the phone but they’re reading/writing/looking at something … well, that’s how it’s usually going to be when you pop by, but it’s not a sign that you can’t come in. Stand in the doorway and say, “Can I interrupt you?” or “I’ve got a quick question for you” or “Do you two minutes for a question about X?” Some people prefer to knock on the open door first as a way of announcing their presence; you don’t need to, but you can.

* If at that point they indicate they’re in a virtual meeting or otherwise can’t be disturbed, quickly say (quietly), “Oops, I’ll come back later” or “I’ll email you!” It’s not your fault that you didn’t magically know that’s what they were looking at on their screen, and they will generally be aware of this.

* If it’s urgent that you talk to them that day, email/text won’t work, and you’re worried you might miss your chance, in some offices you could slip a short written note in front of them while they’re on their call (“need you about X for 2 minutes before you leave”). Only do that for truly urgent stuff though, unless your boss has encouraged you to do it more routinely.

But this kind of interruption is normal! They’re getting it from other people, and they’re not going to be put off if you do it too, assuming you’re judicious about it (as opposed to showing up in person every single time, even when you could have messaged).

{ 91 comments… read them below }

  1. LoV...*

    The don’t linger advice is really good. Sometimes, if I walk by my supervisor’s office, I have to look a minute to see if he’s on a call (laptop mic and speaker), so sometimes he’ll see me and point to his computer, so then I just nod and make a hand motion like I’m leaving and will try again later. YMMV of course, but it’s worked for me.

  2. Marna Nightingale*

    I agree with all of this advice so much and also would like to pass on that when they were full-time in-office my partner kept a white-board on their door for stuff people didn’t want to interrupt him for but wanted him to know about or address fairly quickly and that worked pretty well too.

    It’s equally great for “Is X signed off? Editing needs it by EOD” and “tacos for lunch, 1ish?”

    1. Jolene*

      I like the white board idea, but I almost always prefer when direct reports interrupt me to get a quick answer. It’s personal preference. As long as it’s something that actually needs done, I appreciate if someone interrupts me to make sure they get an answer. If a whiteboard – or emails, etc. – then the onus is on me to circle back, which I find very difficult.

      But it’s a style thing. I’m good at quick answers under pressure. I really want direct reports to make sure I don’t miss a deadline. Corner me and get whatever info you need. I’ll appreciate it.

  3. Nesprin*

    Have you asked your boss what they prefer for you to do when you urgently need something? I’ve worked with “please interrupt me” and “please text me” types, and sometimes having someone state that yes, you can always come find me when you need me is really useful in getting over the needing to interrupt someone hump.

    1. nnn*

      That’s what I was thinking.

      In life in general, when you’re wondering how to handle an interpersonal situation, it can be useful to ask the other person involved in the interpersonal situation what they prefer.

    2. Daisy-dog*

      Some managers are way more optimistic about their availability when talking hypothetically. Some are like, “please interrupt me”, but there are exceptions for *that* type of call and something happens and they have *that* type of call for 7 hours/day. Or they’ll say, just shoot me an email/text and then they respond 5-7 days later. However, it’s still worth a try!

    3. Grim*

      That was gonna be my suggestion! Ask them what you should do if you have an important matter that needs an urgent response but find they’re in a meeting. They might say they’d prefer you interrupt if it’s truly urgent, they might say to slip a piece of paper in front of them so they know you want to see them when the meeting’s over, they might say something else entirely. An agreed upon protocol would be useful here.

    4. Cartographical*

      Definitely ask but also please remember: YOU are not interrupting them personally, WORK is interrupting them, usually THEIR WORK. It is not your fault and it is not rude any more than a calendar alert or an email is rude. This is not a “so, how ’bout them Bears?” kind of interruption.

      When you’re a higher level employee, at least among the people I know living that C-suite life, getting interrupted is part of your job and the only way you can get work done some days is if you know people will interrupt you if the company catches fire or whatever. Your interjections are part of their job and asking them how to best fit into their workflow if a good idea.

  4. bee*

    It’s so funny to me how social anxieties can be so different! I’ll procrastinate sending an email with a question for as long as humanly possible, and phone calls are Right Out, but doing the lil’ doorframe knock and “Hey, quick question” is absolutely no sweat. No real advice here, just commiseration that any way of asking a question can be anxiety inducing, and reassurance that the pop-by is really not so bad.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Same I’ve already earmarked a few 5-second questions for a coworker who I know I’ll see in person tomorrow instead of sending them a teams message lol

      1. allathian*

        I don’t trust myself to remember anything not written down, and I also hate taking notes, because I don’t fully trust myself to write things down accurately because I’m such a slow writer. You’d get an “IM me on Teams and I’ll see what I can do” from me if we were peers, and I actively avoid jobs where oral instructions from managers are the norm. As a compromise I might say “if you want me to act on your instructions I’m going to have to record our conversation” and whip out my phone.

        I don’t understand how I managed to work in retail for years when I was in high school and college, and for that matter how I managed to take decent notes in class. My ability to write clearly and fast by hand has obviously deteriorated through a lack of use during the last 25+ years, as has my ability to retain spoken information.

        I work for the government, so anything not written down doesn’t count and I’m officially allowed to ignore requests that don’t come in writing, or rather, to ask people to send me an email or IM before taking any action unless it’s a question I can answer off the cuff.

  5. Melicious*

    I had a couple (very young) reports that always apologized when interrupting me. It took awhile, but I finally convinced them that a big important part of my job is to make sure they have what they need to do theirs!

  6. Garblesnark*

    it also helps me to have a quick 15-30 minute check-in with my boss in a regular basis where I can ask all my questions rapid fire. you could check whether this is an option.

    1. Brain the Brian*

      I have a weekly hourlong meeting with my manager. She frequently uses about half of it to catch up on things that she is only remembering because I’m in her office, but it’s there.

    2. Ashley*

      This can be extremely helpful. Sometimes it is a text when I see they are busy to say call/find me when you can I have a few things and then go down my list in order of priorities.

  7. MuseumNerd*

    I can confirm as someone who manages a good-sized team that I consider being “interrupted” by my reports a more important part of my job than whatever else I was working on. It’s never an inconvenience– my job is to make sure they can do theirs. As for signals and whatnot, if my door is open that means it’s okay to come in, and typically if I see someone hovering I’ll address them and let them know when they can expect me to be free. I’ll shut the door if I’m on a call or otherwise occupied. When the door is closed they know they can still text me, especially if it’s urgent. Mostly though, just seconding that you ask your boss how they want you to proceed and then trust whatever they tell you.

    1. umami*

      Yes, this! It’s on me to close my door if an interruption would be inconvenient, so an open door means it’s fair game to come in. The only weird thing is people tend to knock at the far end of the door (where the knob is) and my door opens outward, so I can’t see who it is because of where my desk is placed – I’m always telling those folks to come on in so I can see who it is lol. But if they need something from me, then I need to be accessible as much as possible. If the door is closed, they know to knock if it’s urgent or to come back later if it’s not. Everyone in my division has access to my calendar, so they can always check to see when I expect to be free.

    2. Fleur-de-Lis*

      100%! I much prefer being interrupted and responding to staff/faculty/student questions is my primary job. I also keep my calendar up to date, and my team is pretty good at looking at it when they are deciding whether or not to stop by with longer questions. I am in charge of a large public space (campus library) as well as staff, faculty, student assistants, and am on a host of campus administrative committees. If people always waited to see if I’m available, they’d never get to ask urgent questions! If I’m not interruptible, I put a sign on my door. Otherwise, I’m fair game!

  8. LucyGoosy*

    I’m personally a big fan of the Slack/G-Chat message saying “Hey, I have a quick question about the llama grooming contract. Can I swing by your office really fast before the Shears and Combs Working Group starts?”

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Yes I love messaging apps just for this! I really appreciate someone pinging me to check if now is a good time to chat before calling or stopping by – it’s way less disruptive and it lets me quickly prepare for our discussion (even if just mentally), so I’m in a better place to talk on multiple fronts.

    2. Jaydee*

      I was coming to suggest that as well. Sometimes email or chat isn’t the right medium for the thing itself, but it can be a great medium for letting the boss know there’s a thing and you need 10 minutes of their time. Especially if you poked your head in and boss was busy, that’s the perfect time to send a chat or email that says “I just had a quick question for you. When’s a good time for me to come back?”

    3. Brain the Brian*

      By contrast, I hate them. You’ve already interrupted me; you might as well have just knocked.

      1. LucyGoosy*

        My thought is that if they’ve got their head down and they’re working, they won’t see it. I just figure that whenever they see it and they’re free, they’ll reply.

        1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

          I think rather than trying to convince Brain how right you are, you could acknowledge that people have different preferences. That’s why LW ultimately needs to ask boss what boss prefers. I think having the options from the comments is good, because they can go down the list and find out which are ok with boss and which are not.

          1. Jelly*

            “I think rather than trying to convince Brain how right you are, you could acknowledge that people have different preferences.”


            Whoa, where’d that come from? LG is just sharing a different observation. Sheesh…

            1. Brain the Brian*

              Yeah, I did not read anything other than a difference of opinion in LG’s comment. Thank goodness we’re not all the same! How boring this comment section would be if we were. :)

        2. Brain the Brian*

          Funnily enough, I hate sending Teams messages for this reason, too! I feel like if I say “Let me know when you have a minute,” then *I* have to sit on pins and needles not doing anything else but keeping myself free to go ask someone a question. Generally not a great use of anyone’s time, IMO.

    4. Boots*

      Yes! Or a quick text. In general at my orgs, managers tend to see IMs but directors and above often do not, so I’ll text them if I need something urgent. They are rarely at their desks. “Hey I need your signature today on an expense approval for the new rice sculpting machine Bob talked to you about. Can I bring it by at 11?” I also sometimes stalk their calendars for open windows before messaging – the busier or harder to track down they are, the more likely I am to peek at their calendars and try to predict a good opening for them.

  9. Anon for this*

    I once accidentally interrupted the VP of my division! I was training an evening class of PT CSRs and giving a tour. I was showing where his EA sat, and he was still in his office (not usual for that time of day) on a call. (The setup meant that you were right outside his door when you walked up to the EA’s desk – it was very odd and cramped.)

    The VP actually told whomever he was speaking to that he had to leave because he had a group of new employees outside his door. Then he gave them a very nice little impromptu speech welcoming them and talking about how important the work they would be doing was.

    He was a lovely person who was always very friendly to all staff. New employees often were surprised to find out that nice older man who said hello and chatted with them was in charge of the entire division.

  10. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    My favorite boss back when I used to work in an office had kind of code system by how open her door was.

    Wide open: available, even if you just want to chat about how your weekend was
    Partially open: available for urgent matters only, please knock first
    Closed: only available if the building is on fire or someone is bleeding out on the production floor

    1. Unemployed in Greenland.*

      re: unspoken things – I once was at a dinner with a VIP, and halfway through, someone slipped into the room and placed a post-it next to their plate, and then slipped out. VIP excused herself shortly after. We all figured it was a big emergency (and sure enough, news the next day bore that out) – but I mainly remember just how unflappable both parties were, in that situation.

      I know it’s not really a code if there’s a written note, but what I thought was interesting was that this system must have been worked out earlier. e.g., in an emergency, do xyz no matter what.

      1. Two Fish*

        This reminded me of the chess tournament scene in From Russia With Love. An attendant serves water to the players during the Kronsteen v. McAdams match. Before leaving the table, he locks eyes with Kronsteen aka SPECTRE No. 5.

        Kronsteen takes a drink from his glass, deliberately holding the paper coaster underneath so he can see the message written on it: “You are required at once.” Then he quickly and gracefully wins the game, accepts his opponent’s congratulations, and exits the room to the spectators’ applause.

        1. Unemployed in Greenland.*

          ooh! I will go watch this!
          Have to admit, it’s cool to realize not only that the communicate was so smooth, but also that Kronsteen could have closed the game whenever he wanted.

    2. Anecdata*

      When I was young and early in my career and easily intimidated, we /did/ have a “on fire” situation (although not the building but an electrical panel 10 feet from the door; and right next to some fuel tanks). Our CEO was on a call with our biggest donor and she glared so thoroughly at us cracking her office door to tell her, we just… evacuated everyone else and left her (don’t ask why we didn’t have fire alarms). Turned out fine, we got the fire under control /and/ we got the grant – but she did have to explain to us later that that kind of emergency was OK to persist in interrupting her for!

      1. Unemployed in Greenland.*

        Omg, amazing story! I’m glad your CEO explained, afterwards, and I really hope the office eventually got fire alarms that worked!

  11. SKM*

    Hot topic for me, a boss! My office is down a long-ish hallway and we have a loud HVAC system, so there’s constant white noise in the background. I have several staff members who insist on calling for me from the hallway to see if it is okay to interrupt.

    I’ve asked them repeatedly to walk down and enter my office (knocking is fine if it makes them feel better) to speak with me, because otherwise I just hear my name called in a spooky and muffled way that is awkward to navigate (do I get up and walk to the door to answer? shout back?). They feel awkward doing that and persist with the eerie hallway queries. Please, please listen to your boss when you get direction on how to show up for in-person drop-in visits!

    1. umami*

      Oh, that would make me crazy! That doesn’t happen in my workplace, but my partner has a habit of just … yelling out to me from wherever he is in the house, without even knowing where I am in the house! I have told him countless times that if he isn’t physically looking at me to not try talking to me. It’s … a work in progress.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        My SO does this, too! My mother was of the, “Don’t yell between rooms unless it’s an emergency. If you need to talk to me, come find me.” mentality. His was of the, “There are too many people to keep track of and I can’t leave the littlest alone, so shouting it is!” mentality.

        I’m not sure if the two can ever be reconciled.

      2. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

        Don’t respond. That’s the only thing you can really do. Every time you “yell” back, you’re validating his choice (which I assume is just a thoughtless habit). I assume that he’d eventually come find you if you don’t reply and then you can have the in person conversation.

        1. umami*

          Yes, that is where I am at with it at this point lol. And really because I can’t actually hear what he’s saying, so I … have nothing to say!

      3. Baby Yoda*

        Ugh, mine does the same. Worst is when he’s making noise coming in the front door, while I’m in the back of house with tv on or on a virtual meeting. And they think we can hear them.

      4. Brain the Brian*

        My partner has a hearing impairment. He can’t hear me when we’re in the same room — but he can lip-read across a very crowded room if he needs to. :)

      5. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I developed a habit of texting or sending (at the time AIM/ICQ, now Discord) messages like 20 years ago, because yelling across the house is never necessary unless something is on fire. (I also have a smart light system for my husband nowadays, because we spend a lot of time on different floors of the house and he doesn’t always notice his phone going off, but if I push the button his desk light turns green and he knows to look at his phone when he has a sec.)

    2. Wired Wolf*

      My “office” is an open area but there are two coolers and a freezer in that 6×10 space not to mention all the general front-end din that is around. I don’t react well to people just LURKING; coworkers know that if I can’t hear them it’s fine to knock on my desk or the cart behind me. (unfortunately, customers have learned to do that too and I can’t tell “who’s who” unless I look at them; customers assume–incorrectly for the most part–that if I make eye contact I’m able to help them).

      The upstairs office area overlooks my corner in a sense; someone figured out that if they want to get my attention from up there they drop something (small, usually a paperclip) over the ledge. Easier and probably more fun than paging me.

  12. Warrior Princess Xena*

    I think checking with your bosses on what works well for them would be helpful too! Do they do better with an “office hours” block? A “heads-up” text? A “show up at the door and knock? If these are people you’re talking to regularly and bringing important info to, having a quick chat on “if I’ve got a document for you and you’re on a call, would you prefer me to wait until you’re done or have a designated drop box on your desk” would likely make things more comfortable for all involved.

  13. Medium Sized Manager*

    One thing that may help reframe it in your brain is that, as a manager, I am literally paid to answer your questions. It doesn’t always mean that I can or will drop everything to answer it, but if my team has a question, they are asking me to do a part of my job.

    I also echo the rest of the comments about checking with your manager directly – she may have a process in place that you aren’t aware of, or she can help you navigate this in the future.

  14. helper_monkey*

    Does anyone else make what I call the “Midwestern ‘Ope!’ face” when peeking in and seeing your boss is on a call, or is that just me? Because apparently my body thinks that is required every time….

  15. Speaking from experience*

    Hey LW, I don’t know you and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but your letter reminded me of myself and I ended up being diagnosed with anxiety / going on anti-anxiety meds that have made my life a lot easier.

    Again, I don’t know you, but this level of fear isn’t really normal, and if it’s your normal, you may want to speak to someone if you can.

    If you can’t make neurotransmitters from scratch, store-bought is fine.

    Best of luck.

    1. Dulcinea47*

      …. being nervous about an experience that’s new to you is actually pretty gosh dang normal.

        1. Brain the Brian*

          “Several situations” =/= “several years.”

          But also, let’s not armchair-diagnose. LW needed assurance that this was normal. It is, and Alison has assured LW. Happy ending for all!

          1. Speaking from experience*

            The only person I’m diagnosing is myself. If LW finds the information helpful, then that’s up to LW.

            1. Lilac*

              Suggesting that a person has a mental illness based on one anecdote is in fact armchair diagnosing. I know your comment is well-intended, but it’s against the rules of this site.

              1. Speaking from experience*

                If Alison could clarify, I’d be grateful as the rule states: Don’t armchair-diagnose others (“it sounds like your coworker is autistic/has borderline personality disorder/etc.”). We can’t diagnose based on anecdotes on the internet, these statements often stigmatize people with those diagnoses, and it’s generally not useful to focus on disorders rather than practical advice for dealing with the person in question.

                in such a way that it sounds like we’re not supposed to diagnose other people in the letter, not that we can’t say to the LW, “hey this sounds familiar, have you thought about [x]?”

                (Sorry if this goes through multiple times, my computer is glitching.)

            2. Turquoisecow*

              Suggesting medication to someone based on a single letter sounds a lot like armchair diagnosis to me.

              1. Speaking from experience*

                I went on meds as that’s what worked best for me. I admit, the “If you can’t make neurotransmitters from scratch, store-bought is fine.” perhaps muddies the water, but I meant it more as a tongue-in-cheek joke rather than a statement that OP definitely needs meds.

                As it is, the LW was so stressed about knocking on a boss’s door (and in lieu of any information about it being a toxic workplace/a previous toxic workplace that may color their stress levels) that they felt that they had to contact AAM to get “permission” to knock.

                This isn’t normal, and it’s not healthy, and I genuinely hope that the LW does whatever they need to do to handle this because life can be better. If that means meds, that’s what worked for me, but maybe that won’t work for the LW. Maybe for the LW that means breathing exercises, maybe it means a lucky object that makes them feel better, maybe it means something religious; I genuinely hope the best for them.

                1. Bog Witch*

                  I don’t know why you’re getting guff about this; you’re absolutely right. The fact that something as simple as going to a higher-up’s office to ask a question stresses the LW out so much is not normal. And FWIW, I also recognized my younger, pre-anxiety-diagnosis self in the letter.

                  I get that armchair-diagnosis is against the rules (and for good reason), but I wish commenters weren’t so against others seeing and naming larger, underlying issues in letters. It’s not unhelpful speculation to point out that the level of anxiety around this also needs to be addressed, even if advice around that is outside the scope of what AAM can reasonably offer.

                2. Speaking from experience*

                  @Bog Witch w/ collapsing

                  Yeah, I completely understand the diagnosing rule as written; we don’t need people going “omg your boss is abusive?? sounds like they have bpd” or whatever stigmatizing ableism of the day, you know? But I just. this LW, if they’re genuinely this stressed about this… I see myself in so badly, and I really want them to find balance whatever that ends up meaning for them.

              2. Speaking from experience*

                I admit the “If you can’t make neurotransmitters from scratch, store-bought is fine.” joke probably muddied the waters but truthfully, meds only worked for me. If the LW doesn’t needs meds, they don’t need meds, but they do deserve to know that, barring some form of toxicity not mentioned in the letter, life doesn’t need to be like this and the LW deserves better.

                1. Properlike*

                  I’ve learned so much from other commenters offering personal perspectives and experiences. I don’t mind this. No one said, “LW, you definitely must take drugs.”

                  Neurodiversity is poorly understood and a beautiful thing. Sometimes it takes another person to recognize when it’s outside the normal!

                2. Speaking from experience*

                  @Properlike w/ collapsing.

                  Thank you; I understand that the other commenters meant well, and my joke about store bought probably didn’t help in hindsight, but it can be really hard to understand normality when you’re I the middle of an anxiety vortex, and I just want the LW to know that she’s not alone.

  16. Dulcinea47*

    the pedants among us would really like you *not* to say “can I interrupt you”, because you already have! (I had a coworker who started every interaction that way and it drove me batty.)
    I tend to say “do you have a few minutes for a question?” which gives them the opportunity to say so if they’re in the middle of something.

    1. Medium Sized Manager*

      I used to ask “are you busy” until a COO politely pointed out to me that he’s always busy but that doesn’t mean he won’t answer my questions. It’s been several years and a couple promotions, and it still haunts me

  17. Aquamarine*

    I think you should try to be very accurate about the time your going to need, or else not specify the amount of time. It’s hard to have someone stop by with a “quick” question that turns out not to be quick at all. Just a thought.

  18. McS*

    I generally agree that you shouldn’t stress about this. Also if the door is open, even if they are in a meeting, they probably appreciate you being proactive and interrupting them – helping you do your job is their job and the only way they know what is needed to do that job well is for you to ask questions! BUT, in every org I’ve worked in we’ve used a web based calendar like Google calendar, and in that case you can check their calendar for a time when they are likely to be free. And it does not require magic to know if they’re in a virtual meeting.

  19. Lily Rowan*

    This is a great question, and a great answer. Did this topic come up on the “what people don’t tell you about work” open thread the other day? It should have.

  20. Festively Dressed Earl*

    I used to get anxious about interrupting partially because I was afraid my question was ‘obvious’ or ‘silly.’ One more tool that may help is mentally cataloging what you’ve already done to find the answer on your own. (But don’t add those details to your question unless your boss asks you what you’ve tried so far.)

  21. Erin*

    Oh this is nbd at all!I hope no one feels this nervous when they swing by my office. Usually if the door is closed and there’s a window just wave or knock lightly and see if the person waves at you to come in. Or you can message them on chat first and say ‘ok if I pop by with a quick question?’

  22. Superheroes don’t knock, right?*

    I have quadriplegia and I can’t knock physically. Is texting always appropriate? (I work in a disability related field.

    1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      Depends on your workplace! Most places I’ve worked use a messaging system like Slack and texting is reserved for emergencies, but some places rely heavily on texting. Some sort of text-based rather than voice or physical communication should always be okay though.

  23. beezus*

    RE the last point, especially if my boss saw me lurking, I’ll send a Teams/Slack note with “Not urgent, but can you stop by my cube when you have a minute to talk about X?” Not urgent in this context meaning you don’t need to drop everything, but I do need to talk today (I’m in HR and this is usually to the CPO or CFO or Exec I work under).

  24. Lilac*

    I always feel awkward about this too. I find it helpful to open with “Hi, do you have a minute?” instead of jumping right into my question—it gives the other person an opportunity to say yes or no or “not right now but I’ll be off this call in ten minutes” or whatever. I don’t know if my boss actually cares whether or not I did this, but it made me feel less like I was imposing.

  25. Trippedamean*

    Allison’s advice is exactly what I do. My boss isn’t exactly shy about letting us know when we’ve crossed a line, either, and she’s had no problem with it. I’ll usually use the time frame one, especially if it’s close to the hour or half hour, since my boss may be about to start a virtual meeting and only have five or two or one minutes.

  26. lisajane*

    I’d just ask the boss how they are happy to be interrupted and then make any adjustments (ie if certain things are more urgent then does the method of interruption change), if you’re not sure the best way and when by the current interruptions.

    I work for a surgeon, who is very difficult to contact in surgery but would not be impossible via other people in a true emergency. But when we’re both in the consulting rooms, without talking about it we’ve got method of interruption and when figured out. Depending on the reason for interruption, what we’re both doing, and if it’s a 5 second thing or a longer discussion, it’s a text message, phone call, going to his office and coming back later if the door is shut and he’s not consulting (unless it’s a more urgent interruption), or sticking my head around the doorframe and either leaving a post it on his desk or saying ‘hi’ in which case he’ll either just give me my answer or invite me in to sit. After awhile you can often work out how to interrupt and when, but if not, just ask.

  27. Delta Delta*

    I’d ask them what they prefer. There are most definitely times when an interruption is necessary, and they know that.

    I once worked in a law firm where one of the assistants was awful about pouncing on people. It would be very common to take a break during a deposition and she’d run over as fast as she could to ask about random, unrelated stuff that could most assuredly wait. It never really computed to her that although her tasks were important, interrupting/pouncing with unrelated things wasn’t effective or fair. Had she just asked if that time was a good time to connect, things might have gone more smoothly.

  28. Sorry I was double muted*

    I’m the boss in this situation, and I hope that I’ve set up a collaborative work environment so my direct reports aren’t nervous about approaching me. Order of how to contact me:
    come see me (if we’re in the office that day)
    call me
    text my cell
    I have to disagree with Alison on the slipping a note in front of me while I’m on a call. This would annoy me so much that I’d be flipping over desks. I find it super intrusive for someone to be in my personal space like that when I’m in the middle of something.

  29. Clare*

    My best tip for doing this:
    Consistently try and come up with an estimate of how long your question will take and make that your opening.

    “Hi Boss. Do you have 2/5/10/20/30 minutes?”

    Sometimes people don’t have ten minutes but they do have two. If you always call your questions “5 minutes” then they’ll sometimes ask you to come back later for the two minute questions, just because they can’t read your mind.

    You need to be consistent and honest with your estimates, and if you are, your boss will come to trust you over time. Best thing is: you don’t need to be any good whatsoever at making time estimates – as long as you’re consistent to yourself. Your boss probably won’t trust your time estimate the first few times you make one, anyway. But after a while they’ll learn that you call ‘Type A’ questions ‘2 minutes’ and ‘Type B’ questions 10 minutes, or that you always run 5 minutes over, or that you’re usually pretty spot on etc. That will give them a far better estimate of what they’re in for than hearing the ballad of the manager once again. ~”Hey boss! Have you got 5 minutes?”~

  30. Sara without an H*

    I made the rule that, if my door was open, I was interruptible. (I only closed it for meetings and, occasionally, when I had a tight deadline.)

    But I once had an employee who was so polite and diffident that they would stand silently in my doorway until I looked up. It took a long time to get them comfortable with the idea that they could knock on the doorframe if she needed my attention.

    Yes, this was in the American Midwest.

  31. Scooby Boo*

    Does your boss share their calendar? If so you can always check to see if their block is marked “free” or “busy” before you pop over as well! That may head off you accidentally interrupting them when they’re on a virtual meeting.

  32. LawBee*

    I love this kind of low-stakes question. It’s the kind of thing you don’t know but maybe feel like you can’t ask.

    I’m glad you asked, OP!

  33. Inkognyto*

    This even works when not in an office. Once you get to a certain level in an org, email just floods in.

    I report to a Director, and we’re all remote.

    Slack while great, isn’t good at expanding on details. If I cannot huddle, I can always write up something nice and concise on what I need, then pop it in Slack to check my email on X, etc. I figure if their email is buried their slack is too.

    I often still need an upper mgmt push to get people to do something that you send out 10 times because some people don’t do jack unless it comes from a mgr.

  34. FD*

    I may have missed other people saying it, but I’m also a big fan of just asking people their preferences.

    These days, when I start a new job or get a new coworker, I ask people for their preferences. My script is usually something like, “How do you prefer me to handle it when I need a fast, time sensitive response? Do you prefer me to call, text, Teams, pop over in person?”

    And then a follow up, “What about for things that I need but that aren’t time sensitive? What method is easiest for you there?” If they say something like email (vs. ‘keep a list of non urgent questions and ask me them all at once’), I may also follow up with: “Got it. Are you usually swamped with emails so that I should keep it on my list to follow up in a few days if I don’t hear back or is that not usually a challenge here?” (This is a more polite way of saying ‘Do you keep up with your email or once it’s been a week, do I assume it’s fallen into the void?’)

    In my experience, people LOVE being asked how they prefer for others to communicate with them, because it shows that you want to be adaptable to their preferences. They’re usually truthful if you just ask them.

  35. eh*

    If the ask will take more than 2 minutes, just schedule a 15-30 minute check in with your boss. It’s also important to realize the challenges of context-switching for many people (having to constantly move between conversations with no palate cleansers in between). Many supervisors appreciate the opportunity to give conversations their undivided attention – so many are overstretched to the point where they can’t.

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