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My current position is within the IT department for a large company. My boss often asks me questions that I didn't expect and am not sure how to answer. The questions are often sudden, making me feel put on the spot, forcing me to give an answer right away.

One example is:

"What are you doing this afternoon?"

I'm not sure how to answer this because I don't schedule for what I'm going to do in a day. Should I ask my boss if he would like me to? Part of the IT position is tech support and a lot of what I may be doing depends on factors such as if a problem arises or if an update breaks a program etc. and is hard to estimate a time for. I also have some training videos to watch in the downtime.

Should I have replied "assuming nothing else comes up I have some training videos to watch"? Not only could I have done that but there were plenty of other things I could have been doing to prepare for future tasks.

What I did say was what I was currently working on. Should I ask him what I should be doing since he is the boss? In a nut shell there are a number of things I know need to get done and I'm not sure which I'm going to be doing after my current task or how long my current task will take.

Other questions asked regard problems with the building. For example a strange humming sound from an unknown source has been happening. My boss asked me what time I had heard the noise the other day. I didn't think I was expected to remember. What should I have answered? I gave a ball park estimate but then other people said "that's a different time than I heard it".

Maybe if someone could explain my bosses point of view/reasoning for the question I would better be able to answer him. I really am trying hard to work well with my colleagues.

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    Perhaps you're being 'ambushed' to see if you're idling. Any answer is good, as long what you're doing is one of your roles. This might be described as 'management by walking around', but 'out of the blue questions' are less good than a real conversation. – Meredith Poor Jul 20 '13 at 22:47
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    Every boss I have ever had has asked me what I was doing at some point. It is their job to know that and I find it odd that you would think that was an unusual or surprising question. – HLGEM Jul 22 '13 at 14:12
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    Could you please provide the companies you worked for previously where your boss DIDN'T ask what you were doing? A direct link to their job postings would be great – jmorc Jul 22 '13 at 18:10
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    You really think there is something wrong with him asking you what time you heard a sound? Seriously? – squeemish Jul 22 '13 at 19:20
  • Being asked what you are working on is reasonable--but he's being asked what he will be working on later. Unless it's still the current project that's something I wouldn't be able to answer--when I'm done with what I'm doing I open up the list of things to do and do the top thing on it that isn't blocked for some reason. – Loren Pechtel Jan 27 '16 at 20:43
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When you are asked a question, you are best served by just giving a simple, honest answer rather than trying to psych out what your boss really wants to hear.

When asked "What are you doing this afternoon?" you could have answered "I don't really know, because I don't usually schedule my afternoons, and here's why..." Then you could follow up with "Would you like me to handle this differently?"

When asked what time something occurred, you can answer "I'm not sure - I think it was about xx o'clock".

If you don't understand why your boss asks you any question, find a quiet convenient time and ask him. "Hey, boss. Remember when you asked me xxx? What was your thinking around that? I'd like to understand better, so I can give you a more useful answer next time."

When people on my team ask me such questions directly, I'm never offended. I consider it a smart thing to go directly to the source, rather than just guessing. Only your boss can tell you what he was actually thinking, not anyone here.

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    Good answer. One possibility is that your boss doesn't really know what you do, and is looking to find out. This is a good thing, by the way. You might also consider doing a little more scheduling than you do now. It's always a good idea to know what is the highest priority thing you should be working on (in your case if you don't get a support call). – DJClayworth Jul 22 '13 at 13:08
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    Do people really speak that way in your workplace? It sounds like a very submissive and appeasing way to communicate with your boss. "Please let me know how I can fall in line, please like me". Very artificial and cringey. – Pequod Jan 27 '16 at 17:15
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I'm going to bet that your boss just has an "inquisitive" conversational style. I don't think there's anything surreptitious in his questioning.

When he asks, "What are you doing this afternoon?" he is probably trying to see if you are available. A good answer would be, "I am on-call for support, and I have some maintenance tasks planned if it's not too busy. They don't need done immediately, though. Do you need me for something?"

It shows you're focused on your work, responsive to the environment, and know how to keep yourself productive while still being available for special events.

Also, when asked, "When did you hear that weird noise?" - He's probably trying to figure out what it is. If you're not sure, you're not sure. It may have happened more than once. If he was worried about whether or not you were at your workstation, he could pull the security event logs any time he felt like it.

I think you're reading way too much into this.

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The problem with "what are you doing this afternoon?" is that it could mean almost anything:

  • there's a great opportunity to come with me to an event; I wonder if you're too busy for that?
  • I don't think you have enough work to do and you should have come to me by now to ask for more; I wonder if you even have anything to do today?
  • I don't know what the heck you do all day or if you're important to our department; I wonder what you will be taking care of today?
  • I asked you to do X three days ago and it's not done yet; I wonder what you're doing instead?

Regardless of the intention behind the question, "I was going to watch some training videos" is a TERRIBLE answer. Why? Because it's vague, and it's task-focused, not outcome focused. Nobody wants you to watch a training video. They want you to learn something. There is a difference. And in fact, they don't even want you to learn "something." They want you to learn "how to use the new X features of product Y" or "more about the new A options in language B." You need to be specific about what you intend to learn, and to focus on the learning outcome rather than the tasks you will undertake to learn it. But after saying all that, watching training videos is usually what you do when there's nothing to do - it rarely gets to the top of anyone's todo list. (I often have watching conference videos on the top of my list, because I'm paid to learn things first and then teach others, but few people are in my situation.)

A better answer might be some of these:

  • As you know XYZ went live this morning so I didn't schedule anything important today, that way if something has broken I will be available to take care of it. I'm going to be learning [very specific topic eg versioning in Git or what's new in Windows 8.1] but of course I can stop that if anything happens on XYZ.
  • I've caught up on all my assigned tasks, as I reported to you yesterday, so today I am prepping for some future work I know is coming. If you have something more to assign to me, that would be great.
  • Because we got XYZ done a day early, today is a bit of a lull. It's a chance for me to catch up on some administrative tasks that always get left for later. Is there something you'd like me to take care of?

Notice the pattern? Context, outcome-based description of the plan, offer to be available if the question is leading in to suggesting you do something else today.

As for "when did you hear the weird noise?" either you remember or you don't. Unless you think your boss is trying to prove you weren't even in the building for part of the day by quizzing you (which I doubt) there is really no issue with you remembering it at 2pm and someone else remembering it at 3pm.

Relax, do your job well, and don't overthink why some people ask seemingly random questions. Answer them the best you can (which is not always just blurting out your first thought) and then go back to doing your job well.

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    How come saying I've got training videos to watch is a bad answer? My boss told me to hold on to them for when there's down time. – JohnStewart Jul 22 '13 at 9:44
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    Watching training videos is "filler" work. It's not a priority task. When your boss says, "Down time," he means when there's absolutely nothing else to do, you should watch the videos. Nothing is supposed to be prioritized above that. If your boss asks what you're doing, you say, "I'm on call, but I don't have any appointments. Do you need me?" You're there to do the tasks he needs done. Training videos are only for when you've run out of tasks. – Wesley Long Jul 22 '13 at 14:48
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    @WesleyLong I can't talk for every employer, but this absolutely not true in my experience. I'll agree that you provided some great alternatives to word it, but there's nothing inherently wrong with saying you've got some training videos to watch. In my industry (IT Consultancy) it's imperative that we stay up to date and full of knowledge - it's what wins us contracts, and keeps our reputation. If I only did it when there was nothing else to do, I'd never learn anything new and would stop being a productive member of the team. – Dan Jul 25 '13 at 9:27
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    @Dan - Training is an important function, and no one is denying that. I've done the consultant gig for a fair number of years, now, and I'm well aware of your position. The problem is "I have videos to watch" has a really bad ring to it. In your case, saying "I'm spending some time on our required training" would be the correct answer. However, the OP is in a completely different role, and the priority of the videos was explicitly set at the bottom of the task list early on. – Wesley Long Jul 25 '13 at 15:47
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John, your manager might just be proactive and building up an understanding for how the team is utilized. As managers are regular people they might not be perfect in communications. Try to give a brief explanation like you are and give some questions back to try to figure out what hes really after. It will be a lot easier for you both if you try to understand each other.

A good manager would put the question in a context, such as "What are you doing this afternoon? There is a high prio case that Jim is working on. Can you help?"

  • You seem to be answering the question "why did my manager ask me what I was doing" which is very different than "why did my manager ask me what I was doing this afternoon" – JohnStewart Jul 23 '13 at 8:48
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Relax.

Keep looking for new stuff to do when you run out of assignments.

You'll never worry about why people are asking again (even if you didn't really need to before).

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Others have speculated about why your boss is doing this, so instead I'll suggest a way to either reduce the number of times your boss asks you what you're doing, or at least make it easier for you to answer quickly: Keep a list of the various tasks you're working on in a visible place. Add stars to indicate high-priority tasks. When your boss asks, show him your list, tell him what you're currently doing, and tell him what you think you'll do next.

One thing to be aware of: If a task stays on your list for what might seem like a long time, consider why that's happening.

If it's because it's one of those tasks that spawns a lot of sub tasks, then you probably need to break down the task into smaller units so that you can demonstrate that you're making progress. Suppose the task is "fix the printer", but you're waiting for a part. Your to-do list might show that you've ordered the part for the printer, but it hasn't arrived yet.

On the other hand, suppose the task is taking a long time because it's lower priority than your other tasks. When your boss asks about the printer, show him all the high-priority tasks with stars next to them, and ask him if he'd like you to change some task priorities.

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