How do you set boundaries with a coworker who keeps walking in to your office with a question, when you are just busy working?

Usually my other coworkers approach and make some noise and signal their arrival in some way, and wait till I acknowledge them or if I don't, they say something and wait until I do.

But this one person walks into my office walks right up to me and starts speaking their question. That would be okay by me if I was waiting for them already, but I'm not! Or if they were to continue a recently-started discussion, that would be okay too, but they're not! It's a new unexpected one.

Thankfully that does not happen often, but when it does, I find it unsettling.

How do I handle this?

Other than putting up with it, I can think of saying something like: "When you come to me with a question, I prefer you wait till I acknowledge you first, or better yet, send me an email". But that risks sounding brash. I want to avoid negativity but nevertheless have some tools to assert my at-work boundaries, and even if there is a conflict, make it one that is least likely to cause me issues later on.

  • 1
    Are there any particular circumstances in this situation why you can't just stop the person and ask for them to wait until you're finished or to come back at another time? Otherwise it just seems like a normal request between two adults.
    – user8365
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:18
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    You don't have a door?
    – Kilisi
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:27
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    @JeffO speaking from my own experience, by the time the person has stopped long enough to get a word in edgewise, my concentration is already broken and the time is lost anyway.
    – alroc
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 16:39
  • "sorry it's not a good time." (it's too short for an answer.)
    – user42272
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 15:23
  • Even shorter than @djechlin: "Busy. Try later."
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 23:54

8 Answers 8


The direct conversation is useful, but I would make it about productivity, not your personal feelings. "Bob, I need time to switch gears. It would be more efficient for us both if you gave me some heads-up."

He may also need training to break this habit. When he walks in on you and starts talking, don't look at him. When he finishes his question, then you can look up and say "I'm sorry, I was concentrating on something else. What did you say?"

  • They could also try involving their manager or the manager of the person causing disruptions if initially asking them to stop doesn't work. Their day is being disrupted which can hurt productivity, and if they get their manager or a manager on their side it can also protect them from the person causing the disruptions from causing further issues them down the road. OP may not be the only person affected by this person's actions.
    – MattD
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:37
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    Second paragraph always works :-) Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 11:43
  • Yep, I use the approach in the 2nd paragraph as well. What's interesting is that some people don't seem to acknowledge that I have my headphones on and I can't hear them anyway... Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 18:42

Establish office hours

If you're frequently being tapped for information and it's disrupting your workflow, establish time when you are available to answer non-emergency questions. Advertise this as a service--people will get your full attention, a little extra time, a complete answer, and a commitment to follow-up if necessary.

Are you doing anything different? No. You'll spend less time because you won't suffer the context switch, and you're already going to give people answers and follow-up if you don't know. You do accomplish three things--you can plan for the disruption, you look cooperative and proactive, and you let people know when you can be interrupted. Most times you'll be working just like normal anyway. If you can plan for your least productive time of day, that's helpful. If you plan it for half an hour before lunch or the typical end of the day, people will have their own motivation to be quick.


Be polite, but assertive. Tell him to send a mail with all the necessary info first concerning his inquiry, to give you a chance to investigate the problem and give a through answer. To barge in and ask questions while you in the middle of something else doesn't seem productive to me.

In our R&D dep we sometimes have senior employees from other departments barging asking for advice or assistance with a problem. It's unprofessional. I usually need logs and other info anyway, so I just send them back where they came from and ask them to send over the necessary info by mail and stop wasting my time without it. We're not big on diplomacy in our dep, so people usually don't dare interrupt our work without a very good reason and without sending over the relevant info and questions first.


I would just start with "Sorry I was working and wasn't paying attention to what you just said. Can you say that again?" and keep doing that each time and even if you do catch the gist of what he was saying, force him to repeat himself. Eventually, he'll get frustrated and alter his behaviour.

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    downvote for advice that escalates a situation. passive aggression is not necessary.
    – user42272
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 15:23
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    Agree that passive aggressive is a terrible way to deal with co-workers. Especially when a simple request may be all that is required. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 21:49

Ask: "I'm busy right now. Can you come back in 15 minutes"? If the answer is "No" you ask: "Why is that? My work is quite important. So please explain to me why you can't come back in 15 minutes".

This handles both the situation where he or she is just too lazy to do something without your help, and the situation where he genuinely needs urgent help that is important enough to interrupt and annoy you.


Have you considered using pomodoro technique? My teammate is doing that from time to time during busy periods. However, he uses noise-cancelling headphones and has put a note on his desk explaining what is he doing and when the enquirer can expect an answer. Whatever reactions this might have caused in the beginning, the team supports his way of working. In the long run the rest of the company got used to it and accepted it and when he needs to focus - he has the possibility.

Should your colleague nevertheless accept your new practice, follow the others' advice - strongly but politely explain what were you doing and insist that you would greatly appreciate if you are allowed to finish your pomodori. And once it is finished you will be more than willing to help him if he still needs it.

May not apply to every situation, but remember, with politeness and a gun you achieve much more than with politeness itself.


If it's a constant issue I would just tell the chap.

'Can you stop doing that please, it's annoying as heck. I don't come to your desk and interrupt you.' (that's if I was feeling polite, otherwise I'd just ask him where he learnt his %&$^# manners from) and move forwards from whatever his response is. Most adults would just respect your wishes, a few would get offended, but so what? They're offending you, I don't see a point in beating around the bush.

  • 1
    No idea why this got so many down votes, if you take "'Can you stop doing that please, it's annoying as heck. I don't come to your desk and interrupt you." that's exactly something along the lines I'd say, maybe sprinkle a "please" on it. Hell, all of my co-workers usually fire off "sorry, busy, speak to you later" response if you approach them at will while they are concentrated on whatever they are working on right now. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 15:47
  • @Cthulhubutt yes I find it hard to believe people actually communicate as other answers suggest, might be cultural, but it seems a very roundabout and complicated way of doing things and open to all sorts of misunderstandings.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 4:18

The big problem you are going to have is being firm enough to get the change you want while not seeming rude or unwilling to help.

So approach the subject very carefully and probably with a mentor. If you do not have a work culture mentor now might be a good time to find one and discuss this with them and/or when they have some skin in the game. This is also the kind of issue a good manager or HR dept. would love to work on (you may not have either of those available).

So if you seek to be understood, seek first to understand.

So first understand why they exhibit this behavior. Once you understand them ask them if they are willing to understand you. When you understand them and they understand you solutions will fall out of the sky like rain drops in a storm.

Once you think you have an agreement email them what you think that is and agree on how you will both model the behavior you'd like to see.

If you need more specifics feel free to IM me or comment and I'd be happy to guide you through the specifics.

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