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Whenever I need to talk to one of my coworkers or my manager, I often have trouble initiating conversation because they look busy and I don't want to interrupt. I work in a software environment where I know the 'flow state' is important, so I'm worried about disrupting their train of thought and setting them back in whatever they're doing.

Rationally, I know they're likely always going to be busy, so what would be the best way to approach them? With my coworkers, I'm in the habit of pinging them via IM or catching them just after they've already been interrupted (eg getting coffee), but I find this harder to do with my manager and don't know if IM would be too informal.

So, what's the best way to approach people when they're busy without being overly disruptive?

(Existing questions I've looked at seem to be 'how do I stop people interrupting me', not 'how do I interrupt others')

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Mar 11 '17 at 12:32

11 Answers 11

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As someone on the other side of this, I'll give you my preferred scenarios. Some of these have been iterated by other people, but I'll go into a bit more explanation:

1) If this is something truly urgent, come interrupt me regardless. If everything is urgent to you, then we would have a problem.

2) If you're stuck on something, and have put time into researching your problem, I like to get an IM (Skype, Slack, what have you). However, don't just do a "Hey". I've seen too many times where if I take a minute to respond to that, you're no longer waiting for my response so I've broken my concentration for nothing.

If you have put some effort into your problem, and it isn't complicated, just include the question over IM. Let me get to it in a couple minutes. If you know how to ask a question, I've been able to reply with the exact fix in the past.

If the problem is more complex, then send your message as "I'm having a problem on x, and could use a few minutes of your time."

3) Email is tricky, and depends more on the environment. If your company is constantly sending emails back and forth, your request could easily get lost in the sea of other messages. This could vary drastically with your manager/superior, so feel free to ask "If I email you a question, is that going to be a problem?"

My main approach to all this is very simple: I want to help you. Aiding the people I work with helps me out by allowing me to not have to worry about doing it. It is perfectly fine to have problems. If you're new to the career, we know that when we brought you on, and are aware we will need to spend more time with you.

However, please respect my time by coming with a question prepared. Show me what you've tried to fix it. Do the research trying to find where the code stopped working, and what it did. Again, if it is a rare situation that you have no clue, that's fine as long as it doesn't happen all the time and you aren't new.

83

If it's not urgent send an e-mail. If it is urgent, then clear your throat and ask if it's a good moment to interrupt:

Excuse me boss, could I bother you for 2 minutes? I need some input.

If he tells you to come back in 5 minutes, or send him an email, you do.

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    Email or slack. – Don Branson Mar 8 '17 at 17:59
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    There are priority levels of communications, each with their own set of expectations: 1) In person 2) Phone 3) Instant Message 4) Email. In person is the must disruptive, but also has the highest expectation of timeliness. Calling someone is less disruptive (they can ignore it), but instills a sense of urgency. Instant Messages are often asynchronous, the recipient can ignore and respond when convenient, but can also see what you need without committing to handling the situation right then. Emails have the lowest expectations of timeliness, are entirely asynchronous, and come with no urgency. – SnakeDoc Mar 8 '17 at 20:04
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    @AndreiROM The priority levels of communication transcend organizations really, and are more universal I think. Think of a 3rd party company you're working with. If you send an email, they will respond sometime, be it in a minute, hour, day, or a few days (depending on what it is). If you call them, however, typically you expect something sooner (although they can send the call to vm). If you ran into the guy on the street though, you expect him to respond to you right then and there (some kind of response, even if it's just "hello" back). – SnakeDoc Mar 8 '17 at 20:28
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    @SnakeDoc In my experience personal preferences frequently override those priority levels. I have encountered many people who, for various reasons, seemed to not like using certain communication methods. The only way to get a response was to use their preferred method. Some people always let phone calls go to voice mail. Coworkers who travel frequently make in person communication impractical. Some people only skim their emails, while others monitor email constantly. If you expect these priorities to be universal, you're going to be frustrated. – Beofett Mar 8 '17 at 20:45
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    @AndreiROM Your current workplace doesn't value productivity then, and your boss isn't being rational. – Andy Mar 8 '17 at 23:26
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Email is a nice way to asynchronously communicate and you can even add a little detail about the issue in the letter. Try not to make it too long at this point.

For really busy people though, it's easy for emails to get buried under the workload and other emails. If it's an urgent and very time sensitive issue, go ahead and interrupt and talk. If it isn't, schedule a meeting via your meeting utility (Outlook, or whatever you're using) where it's easy for the invitee to asynchronously accept or suggest a different meeting time.

If none of those work and the person is absolutely needed for your project or issue, you might try asking the person's manager for assistance, but be careful about that, it can be taken the wrong way.

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    Just make sure it really is "urgent", and that "urgent" things don't happen three times a day. Or you're going to make not-friends. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 9 '17 at 10:16
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    I've worked for managers who basically never read their email unless you talk to them and say "I sent you an email". Then you watch them go through a hundred unread emails until they find yours (which you sent a few hours ago). Admittedly, those companies have communication problems, but each person is different. – Guy Schalnat Mar 9 '17 at 18:14
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First, if you don't know his or her preferred communication style, ask your boss. Catch your boss first thing in the morning before anything else has happened or immediately after a SCRUM meeting or when he/she is getting coffee.

You have to make it clear to the boss how urgent a communication is when you do use his or her preferred communication method and get an understanding o f when it is appropriate to use which method.

The way I work with my boss follows:

If I have a production issue that needs attention immediately, I will barge into a meeting or her office when the door is closed and apologize for interrupting and tell her what I need from her right this minute. If she is not in the office, I will call her cell phone. I only do this though if the communication is truly urgent. And by urgent I mean we will have a client escalation of a problem if the issue is not immediately resolved (and only she has teh authority to do some task we need to resolve it) or the building is on fire or a set of servers are down. Urgent is not "I am inconvenienced by you being in a meeting."

For other things, I will IM or email most of the time, but give enough information that she is aware of the subject and the urgency. I might send an email with full details and request an answer by COB Friday or I might send a message saying "I need to discuss XYZ with you today, when would be good for you. I am currently at a standstill on project X until I can talk to you about an issue."

When using email, there is usually a way to indicate the importance of the email. I use this to mark anything urgent but not to mark everything. My boss knows that if she sees the high urgency marking, the email needs to be read as soon as possible.

I tend to use email when I need to make sure that things are documented and IM when I want to grab immediate attention and then follow up with the email. Because my boss gets hundreds and maybe even thousands of daily emails, sometimes the IM will tell them there is something they need to look at fairly quickly.

If you want to talk to your boss about several subjects or for more than five minutes, then send a meeting request. Your boss is there to clear obstacles for you, never feel that you cannot ask for a meeting. The meeting may get rescheduled, but once it it on there, the chances of actually talking to him or her are much better.

You should be talking to (or communicating with in some fashion) your boss weekly at a minimum. Daily is preferable. I talk to my boss 3-5 times a day most of the time because we have to coordinate a lot of client responses. My boss probably gets 5-10 emails daily from me.

  • Is the onus on me to keep up communication with my boss? The pattern so far has been that I'll be given something, get on with it as best I can (for days/weeks) and then go and ask if I've run out of things or am very stuck. My boss generally never checks up on me. – ELRG Mar 8 '17 at 16:57
  • @ELRG It depends on the person, but this happens. My advisor on my PhD was like this, even though other advisors in our department controlled their students much closer. If your pattern is anything like mine, then just because he isn't hovering over you, doesn't mean he isn't watching you :-) – LLlAMnYP Mar 9 '17 at 9:16
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In our office we have a system to counter just this. We use 'talk disks', which are basically just pieces of cardboard. If they are showing red we cannot be disturbed right now, if they are showing green we can.

In addition; if they are showing red we, the people trying to talk to them, can put a small yellow token with our name on them so that they will approach us next they have time.

Advantage is that because everyone only has one yellow token they will only use it when they really need to - only interrupting flow when necessary but still only when the recipient can stop.

Still, this is a policy rather than something someone can do individually - but it can always be a good suggestion for your own environment.

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Simply ask your co-workers individually just as you asked us in this question. Most are very happy to let you know what they prefer for different situations. And all reasonable people in a software development environment understand the need to balance staying in "flow" with the urgency of various issues that come up.

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Having been on both sides of this, here are strategies I've seen used successfully:

  1. Add yourself to the attention queue for low-priority tasks/blockers. Depending on the team, this could be via email, slack, or filing a ticket in the internal system.
  2. Take advantage of scheduled interruptions, such as daily standups.
  3. "Damn the time/attention cost, this is on fire!" - not much choice when it happens. (Reducing instances of this should be a priority, but probably involves a team-wide strategy and is not your individual concern.)
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In my software dev office we usually ask via instant messaging, or by walking over to them: 'Can I borrow you / Can I ask you something when you have a moment?' then immediately sit back down to indicate they do not have to do anything or even reply verbally right away.

They do not have to even stop typing or whatever it is they are doing until they have reached a natural break point.

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    I find if people come up and ask me "Can I borrow you", it's interfering with my thought train because I usually have headphones on so I'll have to remove the headphones anyway. You should mention to only do that approach if they don't have the universal sign that headphones give to Do Not Disturb. – hd. Mar 9 '17 at 9:11
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    "by walking over to them: 'Can I borrow you / Can I ask you something when you have a moment?' then immediately sit back down to indicate they do not have to do anything or even reply verbally right away." That sounds extremely irritating. If you don't need an immediate response, you just broke my train of thought for nothing. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 9 '17 at 10:17
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    " universal sign that headphones give to Do Not Disturb" - I cannot disagree more. In an open office, there's a lot of unwanted noise (people eating crisps, discussing football/movies etc, even actually discussing their work). Headphones allow me to block that out and in no way indicate that I'm not to be disturbed. – freedomn-m Mar 10 '17 at 11:48
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One place where I worked had a "headphones on" policy where you are not supposed to disturb someone who has their headphones on. It may or may not work, as some people have their headphones on even when they are available, and others can focus without headphones.

Other than that, without any explicit DND sign, someone in an open space should expect to be interrupted at any time, so you can just walk to them.

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I worked at a company where it was normal to walk up to someone's desk and gently knock on it to attract the person's attention, who could then respond with a quick "not today, sorry", "give me a minute", "what's up?" Or whatever was appropriate.

Works well (as all of the answers do) when people are fair-minded and not quick to take offence.

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Assuming you have exhausted the alternatives (e.g. email or IM), I find the following is effective, even if it sounds a bit corny.

  1. Show him he has your full attention. Show up alone, with empty hands (no playing with your phone). Stand up straight. Sometimes it helps to clasp your hands in front of you, almost like you are begging for money. Yeah, it sounds silly, but body language can be very important.

  2. Use the shortest phrase you can think of to communicate how much of his time you need. "Need two minutes."

  3. He might ask, "Can it wait?" If that happens, offer him a specific time that you could return.

  4. If he agrees to give you some of his time, be sure to set the context for the question (concisely) before asking. If he is a lead or a manager he may be working on several projects and may have no idea what you are talking about at first.

  5. You might find that, despite all of this, you do not have his full attention, or that your question is more complicated than it seemed and he can't give you an answer on the spot. Tell him you will send an email and summarize your discussion, and follow up later.

protected by Jane S Mar 11 '17 at 12:32

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