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In my day to day life, when I have a question, I like to ask the person who has the answer in person (instead of sending a slack message). One of the reasons for that is that, most of the time, I can't move on to my work without the answer I'm looking for (I'm really bad at switching task on my own).

In my previous job, some of my coworkers took this habit of mine really well when some others were annoyed by it.

Since I don't want to make the same mistake I made there, what nonverbal clues can I use to know if my interruption (with me coming to there desk) will be and is well taken?

Notes and clarifications:

  • Someone asked if there was some significant age difference between the annoyed on and the others. I don't believe there was. The one most annoyed was "young" but some other "youngs" weren't annoyed. A "not so young" was annoyed when another "not so young" seemed very pleased to see me every time.
  • Annoyed or not is not a matter of age but of workload and the load of questions you get. There are times when you are deep in thoughts so that even a short interrupt regularly bumps the last couple of minutes, ideas and plans out of mind. Have only a few questions per hour and you effectively don't work anything else. There are colleagues who think their work is the only thing a whole department has to do, everyone else is just their assistance. This annoys from several perspectives. Don't be this kind of worker. – puck Feb 17 at 8:25
7

I struggle with this as well, though in the other direction: I really try to avoid imposing myself on others in my office to ask questions in person. I do think that I would be described as too cautious in this, so please keep that in mind when reading my answer. There is also a personal element which you can only figure out by trial and error-- some people simply dislike one mode of communication or another, regardless of situation.

When I'm trying to decide whether or not, and how, to approach someone with a work question in my office, I essentially run through a list of considerations which I break into two rough categories: a meta level (relating to how often I ask questions and how I generally go about doing so) and a specific-instance level (based on the details of a particular task and any questions associated with it).

Meta Level:

1. How often do I ask questions of the specific person I would need to ask this time?

If I ask a given person questions more frequently, I'm causing more interruptions and consuming more of their time. More questions leads me to lean more towards email (or any other asynchronous method) for questions, so that the person I'm asking can fit my requests into their own schedules and workload more smoothly.

2. How does the person I would be asking usually communicate?

Some people are all about direct, in-person communication, while others are more reserved. If someone asks a lot of questions in person, it's a decent bet that they won't mind much if someone else asks a question of them that way. This can provide some guidance in situations where you haven't asked that person a question before, or you have asked but were not able to read that person's reaction very clearly.

3. Is there a pattern to the kinds of questions I find myself needing to ask?

There is nothing wrong with asking questions at work (I feel it's usually better to ask than not). But if you find yourself frequently asking questions on a particular topic, or in similar situations, it might be the case that, for whatever reason, that kind of information isn't so memorable to you. In those cases I like written questions (especially through email) because they are self-documenting. I can always refer back to the question I asked and the answer I got. A verbal interaction, even if I take notes, can be less clear in a later review.

4. How often does this person ask questions of me?

This one is pretty loose. There are a lot of professional arrangements where information is going to mostly flow one way: I might need information from our coding department, because I don't know much about medical coding in detail but still need to work with that data, but the coders don't generally need any information from me.

But among coworkers whose work overlaps frequently it can be good to have a frequent, informal pooling of knowledge and experience. If we chat about SQL coding practices we can both become better at it, and the less-formal situation of face-to-face interaction really promotes discussion and encourages more of it. Formality can be a barrier to that kind of interaction, and so I like to keep up the habit of personal interaction when I can.

Instance Level:

1. How critical is my need for the information?

This can be a hard one to answer, but if I truly need the information immediately then asking in person is by far the best way to satisfy that need. If it seems like I often have urgent needs for information that suggests that some process could be improved (to avoid that kind of constant last-minute scrambling), or that the work environment is simply one that requires lots of ad hoc face-to-face interactions. But those are external to any given question you might need answered.

2. How much might I be expected to know the answer already, or figure it out myself?

This is definitely a lower priority than (Instance, 1), but if it's something that I might plausibly be expected to know or figure out then it's less reasonable to demand an immediate response. As above, if you need the information now then you need it now, but my weakness in some task or area isn't a reason to add burdens to my coworkers at my own convenience or need, and so I'm more likely to give my coworkers flexibility in how and when they respond.

3. How self-contained and well-defined is my question?

Some questions are very straightforward and specific, and can be answered completely without much trouble. For these questions I wouldn't worry about which way I ask. But some questions are fuzzier and require some amount of back-and-forth discussion to really address, and for those I overwhelmingly prefer real-time, face-to-face communication. I feel that it's less trouble than requiring both of us to monitor our inboxes or chat channels constantly.

4. How busy does the other person seem?

This can be hard to judge, but the busier a person is the less reasonable it is to demand that they drop what they are doing to address your need now. Even if you absolutely must have the information to continue your work, that's a problem for you, not your coworker (who has their own work to do).

5. What sort of relationship do I have with this person?

A close friend at work is probably going to be more interested in my needs than a vague acquaintance, and I feel more comfortable asking in person when there is more of a personal relationship there (otherwise it feels very self-centered and transactional to me). This is the type of person that I would expect to care about something like you being bad at task-switching-- that's a personal work issue, and outside of a supervisor or manager it's not other peoples' task to maximize your work efficiency.

On the other end of the spectrum there are some people that I find difficult to work with, interact with only if I absolutely have to, and with as much distance between us as possible. In cases like that it can also be valuable to communicate via email or chat so that there is a record of the interaction (but hopefully things aren't that bad!).

6. Does the person I need to ask seem to prefer one method over others?

You can only learn this through experience and observation, but if you are pretty sure that someone especially doesn't like to be approached in person and interrupted then it's better to avoid doing so (if you can).

3

Very good topic.

Short answer: use common sense. If you see the person typing like crazy, ask nothing. If they talk on the phone, ask nothing.

If you need to ask in person, first ask if you can interrupt - eventually estimate the time needed for the discussion.

Often, asking questions face to face may not work, especially if the other person is very busy.

Compromise: present the question in an email. In case of close deadlines, specify a time frame for receiving the answer.

If you do not get an answer in a timely manner, call the person and remind them that you need an answer - according to email - you may repeat the summary of the question during the call, to simplify the search in the email archive.

  • 3
    Two things I'd add to this good answer. One is to ask people (once) if they mind you stopping by to chat, to get info on each person's preferred style. Other is before coming by, send a Slack message like "hey I have a question about X, is this a good time to talk?". – DaveG Feb 15 at 13:27
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There are some context clues you can use to determine 'okay to interrupt' vs 'do not disturb':

Do not disturb: - Wearing headphones - On the Phone - Typing or writing steadily or frantically - Leaning forward into the screen more than normal, an 'engaged' body posture

Free to talk: - Stretching or fidgeting - Looking around - Checking phone or otherwise taking a break - leaning back more than normal, a 'disengaged' body posture

Overall, though, trying to analyze how focused vs. receptive someone seems is not foolproof. My go-to strategy is to send a slack message saying, "Can I stop by?" That seems to best serve the competing needs of not breaking someone's flow (if they are deep enough to not notice the slack, or just answer saying something like, "Can we meet up at 3?") and getting that irreplaceable face-to-face communication.

A special note for programmers, designers/artists and other focused workers: Some people hate when their work 'flow' is broken, or find switching tasks unexpectedly mentally exhausting or difficult. These people are more receptive when they are already switching contexts. Catching them on the way back from lunch/a meeting/the coffee machine is sometimes a good way to ensure less annoyed coworkers and prevent that distracted, mind is till elsewhere type response that you might get from someone experiencing context-switching 'whiplash'.

  • Do not disturb: in an office with a door, the door is closed. Maybe this goes without saying for most people. But I had a coworker years ago who did not seem to get this point, even after being told repeatedly. – Ed Grimm Feb 17 at 7:59

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