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Today, I had some difficulties with an Excel function so, after a meeting, I asked two of my coworkers if they knew how to solve my issue (since I thought it was an easy problem and they have more experience with Excel than I do).

Both started trying to solve the issue but, after a while, it became clear they had no idea how to solve it. In the beginning, I was very happy at how they were willing to help. However, when things started to drag in length, and since they weren't more efficient than I, I just wanted to get my computer back and go on a break.

I told them that it was okay and that I would try to manage on my own but they didn't listen and kept googling things in order to solve the issue. So I repeated myself several times (with intervals between) but without much luck.

At some point, one of my coworkers finally left but the other (let's call them Helpy) was still very interested in solving my issue.

After some time, I was finally able to get my computer back, but I can't say if it was because my coworker finally found the beginning of a solution (using VBA instead of Excel) or because I had started to do some stretching in the room.

Question

If this problem arises again, how can I put an end to my coworkers' help without being (too) rude?

Notes and clarification

  • Culture is France
  • I believe that taking a break while leaving my computer unlocked for my coworkers to work on would have been seen as rude and weird.
  • My main issue was that 1) I wanted my computer back and 2) I wanted to take a break (a solution where I can take my break without having my computer back wouldn't be a great one)
  • Could you have taken your break and left your computer with them? When you say you finally got your computer back, do you mean Helpy gave up, or he gave you a (partial) solution? – DaveG Mar 22 at 18:04
  • @DaveG Helpy mostly gave up (after giving me a lead I could follow). I believe that leaving without my computer would have been seen as weird and rude. – Ælis Mar 22 at 19:02
  • Your issue is to stop them doing a fruitless job, or to get back your computer? – Santiago Mar 22 at 19:02
  • @Santiago Getting back my computer – Ælis Mar 22 at 19:06
3

I have one coworker like that. Ask him for help and be ready for a 20 minute talk. Or him trying to do the work for you. He is quite smart though and what he says is often interesting. Still, thanks to him I got to practice extracting myself from long talks :-)

I would suggest two approaches :

1. Be more direct

It feels rude to just make a request so that's why many people don't think they can do that, but as long as your tone is warm and friendly, it shouldn't be a problem, reasonable people don't react badly to a reasonable request. Thank them, say their help is welcome, but that you need to go. If you think it will help you, show them you appreciate their help by suggesting you'll ask for it in the future again. In this case, you could have said something like that :

Hey Helpie, thanks for your help, but I need to take a break now. If I'm still stuck later on, I'll come pick your brain again if it's allright with you.

If you don't have to go on a break but just want to continue searching on your own, you can also do that (although it depends on the person and what relationship you have with them). Again thank them for their help, that it was useful, and frame it as freeing them from this :

Hey Helpie, thanks for your help, talking with you has made some things clearer, so I'll take it from here and let you get back to work. If I'm still stuck later on, I'll come pick your brain again if it's allright with you.

If they still won't move, you can still try to be a bit more forceful in your wording, but still keeping a warm and friendly tone, even joking a bit if you feel it will go over well with the helper. Also at this point, don't hesitate to make something up and that you need to do another task that has nothing to do with this. You can even suggest keeping them in the loop of this problem.

I'm glad you find this problem so interesting, but I really need to take a break / get back to work / check something / ... I didn't plan on taking so much up of your time and I need to go now. But thanks a lot. If you want to I can tell you when I find a solution for this.

If they still don't leave, they are being very rude. It's ok to be more curt then ("Hey did you hear me ? I need my computer back now") or stick with an excuse of why you need to leave. If they say to leave your computer, say your not comfortable leaving your computer unattended. This is very common in a lot of places, it wouldn't even cross my mind to keep working on someone else's computer when they aren't there. If you're in a company where people do that, frame it as this being a quirk of yours (instead of the boundary violation that it is).

I know it's weird, but I don't like people being on my computer when I'm not there. Thanks for your understanding.

2. Make up something

If you just want to continue working alone but aren't comfortable telling your coworker that, or you know that they won't respond well to your honest request, just make something up. Go direct to the last option of the previous approach and make up a reason why you need your computer back and want to be alone. You have a meeting, there's another task that demands your attention you forgot about... Again, thank them for their help, that it's much appreciated, but that you forgot something and you need to get back to work. You can even reach your computer while doing so, making it obvious to the helper and leaving them little opportunity to stay.

The approach you choose depends on what relationship you have with the helper(s), and what you know about them. The colleague I was talking about has no problem with me telling him that I just want to continue working on my own, I'm comfortable just telling him I need to go. If he's on a rant and isn't really listening, then I make up something that I absolutely can't stay (meeting, task, urgent bathroom break) and just start leaving.

1

This is a very familiar situation to me - I work with Excel, SQL, and we have a culture of learning from one another and helping each other out, which for the most part is great.

When you think about it, your colleagues are only displaying the same characteristic that you are - that you do not want to be beaten. You are trying to solve a problem, and that extended to asking your colleagues for help. Now they don't want to be beaten, and that is why they were going at it for so long. There would be the additional drive to see the job through because by asking them for help you put them in a position of superiority, and they will want to live up to your expectations. Also, it probably didn't help that two of them got involved because they would have some competition between them on top of everything else.

First of all, a practical tip - Stack Exchange has some really great tech forums that nearly always have the answers, and the best answers, to Excel / SQL questions. That's how I came to be involved in these communities in the first place! I rarely ask colleagues for the same reason you describe; however, I have now got to a situation where they ask me! Thanks, Stack Exchange!

But getting to your problem - if you do need to ask somebody for help why not just get them to help you "remotely"? That is, don't invite them over to your console - go over to their desk and ask them the question if you think that is far away enough. Another way would be to send them an email asking the question. If they insist on coming over to take a look, perhaps say something like:

I really appreciate you offering to look at the problem. How about I send you a copy of the document to look at, then it isn't tying us both up? I do have some other stuff I need to do as well.

Send them a copy, let them work on it alone and then come back to you with their final answer. Okay so you might miss out on seeing how it was done, but you can always reverse-engineer it or ask them later how they did it. The advantages are that they don't tie up your computer and that you don't have to sit through all the wrong ways they try first. You could also continue to work on the same problem in parallel with them. Maybe you'll find a solution of your own first, or a better one.

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