Manner Monday: Workplace Interruptions Q&A

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Today’s Manner Monday Question comes from an intern:

At work, what’s the best way to enter my supervisor’s office if I need to ask her something? Should I knock, say hello, or just walk on in if I need to speak to them? – Bridget

I would start by suggesting you have a conversation with your supervisor and ask her; does she prefer you interrupt when you have questions, or should you make a list and save questions for a specific time during the day. If she would rather not to be interrupted, what does she prefer you do if you’re stuck and need their advice to advance on your task at hand. Should you put that task aside and go to a different one, or interrupt them? Having that conversation to establish ground rules will help you to know how best to proceed.

For other coworkers, it’s a bit more of a challenge as you’re not going to have that same conversation with every person in the office. In the world of business, we are all well aware of different interruptions during our day.  They consist of everything from that little email chime on our digital device, to telephones ringing (or vibrating), and coworkers stopping by for a chat.

A few years ago, my son was in the middle of some serious Lego construction. He was humming and singing and having a grand time. In my efforts to keep everyone on schedule, I was getting ready to start chatting with him to share what was on our to-do list for the rest of the day. Something stopped me in my tracks and I’m so glad it did… I decided my interruption could wait, as it was obvious he was focused on the project in front of him. He ended up working diligently for about 30 more minutes on his creation. If I had interrupted him, I doubt the creation would have seen the light of day.

No matter the office environment, it seems when we need something, or just want to chat, it’s a matter of urgency and whatever our peers are working on at the time should take second priority. And most of us have the need to socialize, whether it is for brainstorming or just taking a much-needed break. So often though, we don’t think about our colleagues and the impact it makes on them:  Are we interrupting? Are they on a deadline and we’ve disrupted their thought patterns?

To help answer Bridget’s question, here are some time-tested tips to keep in mind for treating all working spaces (office, cubicle, reception desk, etc.) with respect, creating a more pleasant working environment for everyone:

  • Eye contact and body language speak volumes. Does your co-worker make eye contact with you and does their body language say come on in? Or are they politely saying ‘Do Not Disturb’ through their lack of eye contact or body language.  Less eye contact should mean fewer interruptions.
  • If your colleague does not make eye contact and has their head buried, don’t interrupt. Make a note of what you wanted to ask and come back later. When you do return, don’t immediately barge in with ‘I need’; ask if they finished their project. And maybe even offer some help.

Sometimes interruptions can’t be avoided, and that’s understandable. But if they can be kept to a minimum, we’re doing our part to create an office atmosphere that is enjoyable for everyone.

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