ask a boss

‘My Co-workers Won’t Stop Talking to Me in the Bathroom!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I’ve worked at an IT help desk for ten years. Recently, my company converted to open-space offices, and it completely changed my workflow: Now people walk up to my desk and expect me to drop everything I’m doing to help them.

People have started following me into the bathroom to ask for help every single day since the move. If I’m on the phone, people wave and stand over me until I interrupt my call. They do the same when I have headphones on and don’t make eye contact. And every day I get stopped when I’m about to leave and have my coat on. It’s happening so much, I’m staying to work late every night. I used to love my job and now I dread coming to work.

You might think the answer is to tell them to submit a help ticket, since that’s a common solution for this problem in IT, but my CEO is against ticket systems. So my job is always some level of triage, and I track items with email. It was manageable for the past seven years, and, having done this work most of my career, I understand that some level of disruption and disturbance is part of the job. But ever since our move to open space, it’s gotten way worse. I don’t know how to set new boundaries. I want people to use their common sense and social skills and understand that just because it’s easier for them to drop by, that doesn’t mean it’s easier for me.

The complicating factor is that my job is some level of presence and availability, just not this much, and not to the point where people can expect immediate gratification. I do want people to come to me immediately if their computer isn’t working or they can’t do their job. But I don’t want to answer iPhone-backup questions while I’m peeing. There’s gotta be a middle ground! 

You’re getting followed into the bathroom?! Multiple times a day?! Some work problems do have a way of feeling really urgent, but your co-workers have clearly lost of sight of reasonable boundaries.

I’m not surprised that moving to an open office is what triggered this — open offices, by definition, remove boundaries. Ideally, people would respond to that loss of privacy by becoming more considerate of the colleagues they’re sharing space with, but yours are just seeing you in their line of sight and assuming you’re available to them. And how frustrating that your CEO has prohibited the one thing that would solve this most efficiently: a ticketing system, which would require people to submit a help ticket instead of the current “whoever grabs Jane first gets her attention” setup. There’s a reason why most IT departments use ticketing systems to track incoming jobs, and it’s bizarre that your CEO won’t allow it.

But there are other ways to solve this, and anyone in this kind of situation at work can try them. It means retraining people in how to communicate with you, and it might feel awkward to do that for a while, but it should eventually work if you’re vigilant about it.

The key: When people interrupt you at obviously inappropriate times, you need to firmly redirect them. If you allow people to interrupt you, you’re teaching them that their behavior works, and maybe even that you don’t mind it. So, for example, when someone follows you into the bathroom, you should say, “I’m using the bathroom right now, so I can’t take work questions, but you’re welcome to email me or come by when I’m back at my desk.” If the person resists, you should say, “I need to stop you. Please don’t follow me to the bathroom with work questions! I need you to email me or come by when I’m at my desk.” (A little bit of shaming is okay at this point! This is someone who not only followed you to the bathroom but ignored your first request to stop. Don’t be rude, but you can be direct.)

Similarly, if someone stops you when you have your coat on and you’re clearly leaving, you can say, “I’m about to leave for the day, but put this in an email and I’ll look first thing in the morning when I’m back at work.” If the person keeps going, repeat your message: “I don’t have much time now and need to leave, but I’ll check on this in the morning when I get your message.”

And if someone is standing over you while you’re on the phone (!), tell them, “I’m on the phone. Please come by when I’m done.” You can even turn your chair around to more definitively signal “I’m unavailable right now.”

You might feel rude doing this at first. But it’s not rude for you to calmly, matter-of-factly state what your availability is. In fact, your interrupting colleagues are being rude, not you.

For the next month or so, while people are getting used to this, you might even experiment with making actual, physical signs, or writing on a small whiteboard. If you know you’re about to be on a 45-minute call, you could write, “On call — unavailable until 2:30 — please come back then” and hold it up to any interrupters. Or if you’re working with headphones and need to concentrate, you could put up a sign at your desk that says, “Focusing hard from 12 to 2 — interrupt for emergencies only.” This might seem like overkill, but it might help during this interim period where you’re retraining people who need help in remembering how boundaries work.

With your most frequent offenders, it might be worth having individual conversations. You could say to them directly, “Since we moved to an open office, I’ve been getting interrupted constantly — even when I go to the bathroom or am on the phone. It’s making it difficult to get things done, and it’s actually causing me to have to work much later than I used to. Can I ask for your help in this? Of course, if something is truly urgent, like if your computer isn’t working, I want you to grab me, but if it can wait even 30 minutes, can you send me a message instead?” You could add, “I think you know I’ll always follow up on your requests. But with everyone grabbing me whenever they have a question, that makes it much harder.” And then, if/when the person does it again, you can remind them of that conversation: “Actually, this is the kind of thing I was talking about! Can you put that in an email to me since I’m right in the middle of something?”

If you’re vigilant about doing this consistently for several weeks, it really is likely to get through to people. Even if they don’t get the message the first time, being consistently redirected will eventually retrain them in how to get what they need. It has to be consistent, though, or you’ll just teach them that interrupting you still works.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-workers Won’t Stop Talking to Me in the Bathroom!’