Actions to take: When you are involved in a task and an employee interrupts, ask if it can wait. Don't make excuses about being busy. Simply pick a better time and ask if you can talk about it then. In any healthy working relationship, they will answer honestly. If you say you will follow up later, make certain that you do.
This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.
Note: This post is written with the manager-employee relationship in mind. It works equally well with your coworkers. This advice is less applicable when the person interrupting you is above you in the chain of command.
When you manage people, there is enormous pressure to be available to your employees any time, all the time. "My door is always open" has become a cliché phrase in TV and film. The show will have a character say it genuinely to let the viewer know that this is a kind-hearted, supportive boss. If the character is a Michael Scott type, they might say this just before their door swings shut. Bosses who mean it when they say it are good bosses. Bosses who don't mean it are bad bosses.
Let's face reality. Your door is not always open. Literally, you have closed-door meetings all the time. When you see that your boss is calling, you close your door. When you have performance appraisal meetings, you close your door. When you talk to HR, you close your door. If you have ever said anything that resembles "My door is always open" then you are being naïve or hypocritical or both.
With that myth dispelled, let's face another reality: sometimes your solo work is more important than the thing your employee wants to ask about. Occasionally, it makes sense to ask your employee to come back in a few hours, or say that you'll follow up with them later that day, so you can continue with the train of thought you were already on. Here's the catch 22. You don't know which is more important until you've asked the employee what they want to talk about. And by the time they explain it, you're already in the conversation, so you might as well have it. Right?
We are, in fact, conflating two concepts. Important and urgent are separate ideas that should be treated separately. The question of which is more important, the employee's question or your solo work, is irrelevant. The employee's question could be of fantastic importance. That is all the more reason to wait until you are not distracted by other work. If you pause whatever you're doing, you will be in a state of mind to clear away the employee's question as quickly as possible to return to your task. That's a terrible strategy for dealing with important questions.
If the employee's question is urgent, that's another story. So how do we judge urgency without getting sucked into the details? We simply ask if it can wait.
Employee: "Hey boss, can I bother you for a minute?"
You: "I'm right in the middle of something. Can it wait until the afternoon?"
If you have a relationship that is built on frequent communication and trust, this exchange is no problem. You don't need to explain to them that you are so backed up and need to finish this and etc. etc. etc. Make the question perfunctory, make it unexceptional. We aren't pleading with our employees. It should be normal for you to deflect distractions when you are involved in a task that requires focus. Frankly, it sets a good example. We get better work out of people who become absorbed in a task and can work through it start to finish. Lead by example.
As is my occasional habit with these posts, I'll finish with one caveat. If you don't do routine one-on-ones, you can't take the advice from this post. When you have a real working relationship with your employees, turning down their interruption is nothing. It's one interaction out of dozens they will have with you over the course of the month, and they know they have that time reserved each week for whatever is on their mind. However, if you are in the habit of only exchanging mundane pleasantries with your people, this interruption may be the only real interaction they have with you. In that case, it will be a big deal for you to say no. Your employee will leave with the message, "The one time I tried to bring an issue to the boss, they turned me down." Yet another example of how routine one-on-ones make all other work go more smoothly.
When you're in the middle of something, turn down interruptions. Practice this over the next several weeks. Even if it is not strictly necessary, try it two or thee times each week to get into the habit. You'll find that the more you do it, the more natural it seems. If you say you'll be the one to get back to them, make good on that promise. If you ask them to follow up and they don't, double check. Most of the time, they'll say they figured it out on their own. Even better! You'll work better. You'll set an example of how to work better for your employees. And occasionally, you'll make less work for yourself. There is no downside to turning down interruptions.