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I am a software engineer. Sometimes, the project manager in my team will randomly call me out of nowhere on our communication software, without asking first if it's ok to interrupt me. They usually will have questions about planning of upcoming projects, which they want my opinion on.

I of course have no problems answering those questions, and I don't have any issues with my colleague in general (I like them as a person and find them mostly agreeable to work with), I just have issues with this habit of calling me without checking if it's ok to do so beforehand.

Receiving a call on my computer, with the consequent ringing and notification popup, while I'm looking at a complicated piece of code is a huge disruption to my concentration, and after that has happened it can take me quite some time to regain it. Also, I generally feel like 99% of those questions could be just asked through a chat message. The topics are (almost) never that urgent.

How can I politely let them know that these calls are actually impairing my productivity, and that I would prefer that any call is preceded by a chat message, to check if it's ok to call me in the first place? This would allow me to switch my mindset and my focus at my own pace, rather than having to randomly jump from whatever I was doing to the new topic at hand at the drop of a hat.

Just to further clarify, it's not (only) having to answer that bothers me, what is enough to disrupt my concentration is the incoming call by itself.

It is not an option for me to simply flat out ignore all calls, because while most calls aren't that urgent/important, some (rare ones) are. Also, I am pretty sure not answering when a colleague calls would make me look impolite or unreliable, and I obviously don't want that.

So, how to broach the subject in a polite and friendly way? My main concern is that the message shouldn't come across as "I don't want to be bothered/annoyed by you"...

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Nov 16 '21 at 16:51
  • Do you have a 'Do not disturb' setting on your phone? Does your work culture respect 'Do not disturb'? My coworker pioneered the culture and now management knows if they need us immediately, call twice. Nov 16 '21 at 17:07
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You can simply ask them. Explain how it takes you out of your flow and ask that they send a chat message/email beforehand so you can let them know when you have time. There's nothing impolite about that.

Other options are simply ignoring the call and calling back when you have time, or if possible set your availability to 'busy' or 'do not disturb'.

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    +1 for encouraging a less-disruptive medium of communication. Many years ago, not long after joining a new company, I popped over to a colleague's desk to ask him for some small task or bit of information I needed — which he duly provided. I thanked him and checked whether it was OK, and he replied along the lines of “Yes, but it would have been better by email.” He didn't stress the point, but I realised how annoying I'd have found it if I'd been in his position, felt suitably chastened, and learned a lesson that day!
    – gidds
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:51
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If this is an actual voice call, just say:

Sorry, I'm in the middle of something. Let's set up a zoom to discuss, my calendar is up to date.

or

Sorry, I'm busy right now. Can I call you back in an hour or so?

Repeat until they get the message that you are not instantly available.

If that doesn't work, stop answering the phone and just message back

"I saw you were calling me but I was in the middle of something. What's up?"

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    +1 for stop answering the phone. If you're super busy, don't answer.
    – stanri
    Nov 15 '21 at 13:53
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    If they insist on being able to contact you instantly, ask them to budget for a personal assistant.
    – Nelson
    Nov 16 '21 at 2:21
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    @mrodo Why do you react so flippantly to Nelson's suggestion? Of course we do not expect your employer to give you a personal assistant; the point is that through this request, you would make explicit to your employer what the cost would be that they have to pay if they would insist on being able to contact you instantly. If you tell your boss "no", they might interrupt you anyway. If you tell your boss "yes, but only if you give me X", then you have shown some willingness to accommodate their interruptions somehow, and the ball is in their court. Nov 16 '21 at 12:21
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    It's actually not a joke. Business people like to talk dollars and cents. As long as you behave like a door mat and get walked all over, that's what they'll do. You tell them something like this: "Look, if you need me to answer you immediately, I need an assistant. Answering your questions right away has a very heavy cost, and interrupting me every 30 minutes will stop me from doing any meaningful work. I have responsibilities that requires no interruption in blocks of time. An assistant is the easiest way to solve this, but if you insist on interrupting me, it also has a real cost."
    – Nelson
    Nov 16 '21 at 12:29
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    @mrodo It is also quite ridiculous to be interrupted all the time. That symmetry is the point! Nov 16 '21 at 18:53
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Does your communication software have an option to set a "busy/unavailable" status? That might be useful to signal that you're at work but can't or don't want to handle interruptions right now. It's almost the same as being in another call, just that an interruption in this case would not disturb your conversation with your call partner(s) but your focus on your current work item.

This would have the advantage that you don't need to defend your position when someone calls you, but they need to defend their position when they call you despite this status. They better have a good reason then.

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  • I don't think that's really an option, because the calls can come at any time in the day (during working hours of course) which means I would have to keep the "busy" status 100% of the time... also, I'd prefer to directly resolve the issue, instead of some passive-aggressive solution.
    – mrodo
    Nov 15 '21 at 11:11
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    @JoeStrazzere I think the issue is that when you see someone is perpetually busy, most people will ignore the status. Partially because you can't tell the difference between the person actually being busy and them not ever changing their status.
    – iheanyi
    Nov 15 '21 at 20:31
  • @mrodo of course if your entire workday is filled with uninterrubtible work you have some more problems. Structure your work day such that you have at least 1-2 significant breaks (lunch time etc) and a couple more small ones (to stand up, relax your back and eyes, get some coffee or tea). Each break is also an opportunity to check messages and possibly switch context to some urgent activity. You can't at the same time avert interruptions and resolve issues directly when they appear. Nov 18 '21 at 16:37
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This can be one of the toughest things for a newly remote team to adapt to. If you were in the office, your PM (or anyone else on your team) can usually look your way or a quick walk to see if you look busy or not, but when the team is remote, that doesn't work.

As a team, you need to agree on what your communication protocol will be. You all have work to get done, and quite often you will need things from each other to get that done. You should discuss as a team and decide how you went to handle/block interruptions and communicate your availability. Then everyone needs to abide by that protocol.

You don't want to be interrupted because you have work to get done, but your PM may be blocked on their work because you aren't free to answer. The team doesn't win unless everyone gets their work done, so you need to collectively form a plan and stick with it.

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Plan time for work that needs focus, then block it on your calendar. Turn your auto-reply function on. Mute your notifications. Let people know when you will be available and how to contact you if there is something that can't wait until after your focus time.

It's a lot easier for you to do something to create the work environment you want than to try to train everyone else how to behave. That's not passive-aggressive; that's pro-actively taking responsibility for your own productivity.

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Choose your own priorities

A common work-management method places activities into 4 quadrants:

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Calls very often fall into the Urgent (the computer is buzzing at me!) but not important. As several comments have indicated, don't answer just because it's ringing.

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  • The problem is that the ringing itself is what distracts me and breaks my flow...
    – mrodo
    Nov 16 '21 at 12:01
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Just take his question has having an implicit "do you have time to answer this question". So you can answer "one minute please, I'll have to finish this thing first".

The interruption is something that can't be avoided - if you're asked if you have time, that's an interruption as well. The thing you can avoid is not being able to finish what you are doing.

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    Being asked via chat is WAY less disrupting that having your "phone" (even though we don't really have phones) ringing. What I want to avoid is exactly that, that my "phone" rings. I don't even want to get to the point of having to answer, I want to avoid unnecessary calls entirely.
    – mrodo
    Nov 15 '21 at 13:07
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For the status of current projects do you have daily stand ups where the PM could be included so they are aware on what's been done and what's left to do?

On future projects perhaps suggest to the PM that he schedules calls with you rather than adhoc so that you can adequately prepare for any questions in relation to that topic? Make it clear that by doing so you're helping both yourself and the PM.

I don't think it's rude to suggest to them that the current format isn't efficient as you can be in the middle of things when he calls.

Failing that, when you really are busy and you don't want ANY interruption, look at using a DND status (I did that today after getting repeatedly interrupted by various people).

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