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Bombarded by noise and frequent interruptions

Dear Office-Politics,

I have a postgraduate degree and am a Teacher. I needed to get a full time job and as there was not one in my field I have taken up an admin job (my first career). It is very unusual in that it is in a large residence with an occupying family. It is also in a great stage of change with 3 office staff leaving during the past few months and with 2 remaining. These two are now my co-workers. There is a part time interim Manager in place until the end of the month, when a permanent one will start and I am responsible for most of the work previously undertaken by the 3 who left. I say majority, because a large part of what they did was inefficient and unnecessary.

So far I have tried not to rock the boat too much for the remaining people who are unsettled by all the upheaval. The interim Manager has had total faith in me since I started and continues to be pleased with my work. I get praised, but would rather this didn’t happen in front of others.

My big problem. The work is not difficult, but relentless. I have to deal with all visitors, all correspondence and phone calls, as well as many, many other tasks. It’s important to keep on top in order to deal with the unexpected large task that might suddenly land on my desk. Also I’m being encouraged to have ideas to develop and improve other aspects of the business. I am the only one in my office, but this is historically the meeting place of everyone to come and have a chat. It is noisy and I’m constantly interrupted. People also feel free to ask me to do things for them at any given moment.

Worst, I’m constantly being supervised by a co-worker who has her own, large, quiet office. She comes into mine every few minutes to do things, to chat, to bang files and papers around, look over my shoulder, go into my desk drawer, look through my in tray, etc. She interrupts me constantly with trivial matters and points out every error I make. She also seems to need lots of praise and I’ve tried to make a point of giving this to her. However, a cold thought crossed my mind today, that this ‘stalking’ has been instigated by the man of the house who is a suspicious barrister. Several small incidents seem to point to him. In spite of his outward charm I think he probably doesn’t trust me, though if he were to ring my previous employers he would be satisfied as to my ability and honesty.

I don’t know how to deal with this situation without causing trouble or offence. I’ve mentioned several times to my Manager that it’s difficult to concentrate on my work because of the noise and interruption. He just sees it as part of the job I think. I haven’t mentioned the stalking though. I don’t think he would believe it.

Thank you

Thanks,

Bombarded

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
timothy johnson

Dear Bombarded

You have a couple of issues to address, but I think there’s a potential solution at least to help you better manage your work load. Because you are the face of your organization to visitors, track which times are off limits to visitors (i.e., what are your “office hours”?). If you are a morning person, come in an hour before then. If you tend to favor afternoon or evening as your most productive times then stay late. Let your manager know your intention to stay the added time and ask if you can post a “Do Not Disturb” sign during that time so that you can have one hour of concentrated time (perhaps behind closed doors, if that is possible). I’ve seen numerous people use this technique, and many of their peers are respectful of that expectation. Proactively communicate to your coworkers that you are not doing this to be rude; but rather, point out that you are now doing the work of your three predecessors and that your work style prefers some time with no interruptions to be more productive, which in turn will allow you to provide better service to both your internal and external customers. If you “sell” this idea correctly, you should buy yourself one hour of uninterrupted time either to prepare for your day or to play catch-up when the day is complete.

As for the nosy coworker, you may need to communicate boundaries to her. Some people, however, require a little spin doctoring, either due to ego or lack of social acumen.

On the issue of her constant visits, you might consider saying, “I really value you as a coworker, and I appreciate our interactions. However, I have a problem and I need your assistance. Would it be possible for you to alter the frequency with which you come to my desk during the day? When you come over, I really would like to give you my full attention, but you always seem to catch me in the middle of something and I really don’t like not providing you with my complete focus. Perhaps we could schedule regular touch points during the day, if that would work for you.

For the unwanted rifling through your drawers and files, you may try, “You know, I’ve heard that everybody’s organizational styles are unique. I notice that you have to spend a lot of time coming to my desk looking for things. I know your time is valuable, so if you would just email me what you need and by when, you’re only a few steps away and I am confident I can provide you much better service than you would receive by having to look for it yourself.

When she looks over your shoulder and corrects your work, you could simply state, “You have a very keen eye for providing feedback. I’m a person who likes to wrestle with a piece before I consider it complete enough for someone else to look at it. Would you mind if I run some things by you when I’ve had sufficient time to make it as good as possible before you see it? I value your feedback and would like to continue to leverage you.”

For each of these approaches, you’re allowing her to “save face” yet still get your point across. If you can get your manager’s approval, make sure he’s in the room when you communicate these and will verbalize his approval. If you do it by email, either CC or BCC him. Since he is an interim manager, I would suggest you be very proactive at communicating these issues with the new manager when she or he starts so you do not end up starting all over at ground zero with a new manager. Also, I would continue to monitor the situation with the “barrister of the house” just to see how that develops. You may not need to take action right now, but keep your radar honed for other signs of interference.

Best wishes and thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.

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  1. One Answer to “Bombarded by noise and frequent interruptions”

  2. Thank you very much for your feedback which was very helpful. I have been trying to find ways of implementing them – not always easy. For example, the colleague who ‘stalks’ me needs to come into my office every time she issues an invoice in order to file it on my shelf. I invited her to keep that and other related files in her office to make her life easier. The suggestion was instantly dismissed! In fact, her behaviour has become even more oppressive over the last few weeks while at the same time all the people who have been there for some time see her as the fount of all knowing.

    Things came to a head last week. I very rarely get personal calls at work, but some former colleagues wanted me to go to a get together so that they could say goodbye to me properly. It was a rather emotional moment for me because I felt that ‘homesick’ feeling of wanting to be with old friends in a familiar place. During the phone call my stalking colleague came and stood in front of my desk with a piece of paper in her hand and waited there till the conversation was ended. I was rather shocked at such behaviour and then became very upset after she had left. I knew then that I couldn’t work in these conditions anymore and went to see my temporary manager, hoping he wouldn’t just put it down to paranoia. On the contrary, he whisked me away to a private place and insisted I told him all that was on my mind. I didn’t mention the colleague first of all, just the fact that I felt that I wasn’t able to deal efficiently and well with my heavy workload because I didn’t get any time and space to do it. Also that my office was a meeting place for everyone and very noisy. He then asked me if there was anyone in particular who was causing me any difficulty. I told him about this colleague and he told me that he had noticed that she spent a lot of time in my office when she should be working in her own. He also questioned why she should feel the need to sit at my desk so often? Well, who knows the answer to that?!

    It was a relief to know that her strange behaviour had been observed by someone else and that it wasn’t all in my head. We both agreed that to tackle her head on wouldn’t not be a good idea as she is obviously someone who sensitive and bitter about the difficult history in this particular working environment. He has told me that she is not my superior and I’m not to be accountable to her. He is currently writing a report for the new Manager and Council of Management. In the report he is going to say that I need careful management and am not to be seen as the office dogsbody who is there just to run around for everyone. That my office is not to be treated as a meeting place for all and sundry and I should be treated with respect, particularly in terms of my time and my private space. He acknowledged that fact that if this situation continued I would understandably leave. I had actually begun to go down this route in my head. At the moment my intention is to work out the 6 months I’ve committed and then find another job (which I could easily do). I know I’m not the loser, but I need to keep my sanity in the present.

    Since this meeting, I have tried other ways to manage the situation. Friday was a quiet day. Potentially I could have stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time to get on with things. This wasn’t the case. My colleague was almost sitting on my lap at times! She made some comment about some work I was doing on my computer, but I didn’t explain or justify. Later in the day she was away for a few hours at a hospital appointment. I was totally on my own for the first time – it was bliss! I caught up with all sorts of things, tidied up my office thoroughly and created an area, away from my desk, where I have put all the things that she seems to need to get out of my desk or from my little corner. I have tried to convey 2 silent messages –

    1. Look how much I can get done when I get some time to myself

    2. I don’t like you rummaging in my private space, so have made available elsewhere everything you might need so you no longer have to do it.

    I hope that she will take the hint and back off. We will see.

    Thank you again for listening. I will continue to follow your advice as and when I can.

    By Letter-writer on Mar 18, 2007

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