How Do I Politely Tell My Coworkers To Leave Me Alone?

Techniques for keeping your focus are useless if your coworkers are constantly interrupting you. Here’s how to finally get some work done.

How Do I Politely Tell My Coworkers To Leave Me Alone?
[Photo: Flickr user Horia Varlan]

From annoying noises to constant interruptions, open offices have a lot of distractions.


This week, psychologist Art Markman tells a manager in an open-plan office how to be an accessible manager and still carve out quiet time to get some work done.


I am a manager of a team of 10, but my desk is mixed in with everyone else’s in our open office. I want my team to know that I’m available if they have questions or need to talk, but I feel like it’s impossible to get any work done. I’m interrupted several times an hour.

Many people wear headphones to shut out the distractions of the open office, but I feel like that’s not professional for a manager. Besides, the few times that I tried wearing headphones, it didn’t make a difference–people still interrupted me. What is a polite way to let people know that I am trying to focus and they should come back later?

Thanks for your help,
Frazzled and Distracted

Dear Frazzled and Distracted,

You have hit on a key problem in many office environments. You have key projects to do that take some time, effort, and concentration to complete. But the open office environment creates a lot of distractions from colleagues. As a manager, you want to be accessible to your colleagues, but not at the expense of being able to make your own contribution at work.

And of course, you are not the only one in that environment who has the same problem. The open office environment encourages people to stop by whenever they want to reach you about something, no matter who you are.

Before your next group meeting, make up a sign for each person in the group that will help them let everyone know how open they are to discussions with other people at that moment. An easy way to do this is with a traffic light. Next to the green, write, “Come on in.” Next to the yellow, “I am working on something, but if it is important, stop in.” Next to the red, “I’m protecting my time right now. Emergencies only.” Next to the red, you can also leave a space to let people know what time they can come back to talk to you.

At the next meeting, give everyone their own sign, along with a clip or post-it they can use to highlight their current status. Encourage everyone to default to the green light, but to move the post-it when they need more privacy. Because everyone has a sign, everyone in the group knows they are empowered to protect some of their time for big projects. That will help them to respect when you have put your own sign on red to give yourself the time to make progress on your big-picture projects.


The alternative to this system is to schedule time each week in a private room to get some work done. Most open office designs have meeting rooms or conference rooms around the outside that can be used for private space. The problem with using these private spaces is that it leads to the assumption that whenever anyone is at their desk, they are available for discussions. It’s better to give everyone in the group the opportunity to control when they are available to others.

The nice thing about distributing signs like this to everyone is that it helps everyone to create the habit to check someone’s availability before popping in to talk to you. You may need to remind people to check the signs for the first week or so, but it will quickly become part of the office routine.

Good luck!

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