The corona virus has everybody working from home. And it seems all of management is recommending to 'stay in contact', to talk with each other digitally. Which may be fun, when it's actually planned and doesn't interrupt work. In this case, my team has already lengthened our daily standup to allow for a 'coffee break' as well, so there's a set moment for small talk.

I'm stuck with several co-workers that seem to think 7:23AM or 11:17AM is a perfect time to start chatting. About the weather, weekend plans, about how their kids are ruining their productivity, the problems at home... Basically, your standard group/one-on-one lunch conversations, random and not about work. And because there's several coworkers doing this on any given day, the stream of these pings is continuous, at random times during the day, that don't allow for long spans of concentrated working like the office usually would.

Usually, when at the office, I'd decline random chatter at the coffee machine with an 'I'm sorry, I'm quite busy', and I can let coworkers know I'm not available for small talk by wearing headphones and focusing on my work. That works, and limits small talk and non-work related chatter to lunch breaks or moments (like the few minutes it takes for everyone to arrive at/disperse after a meeting) very well.

I've found these tactics don't work well when working from home and communicating digitally. Especially not when the general expectation seems to be that 'the guidance says we should all make some effort to stay connected, so random small chat during work hours is perfectly acceptable'. I must admit I fell for this in the first few weeks too, when these types of conversations were limited to one coworker, maybe once every other day. But as time progresses, it seems to escalate and get out of hand, I can't have three non-work related chats a day on top of the work-related ones and concentrate enough to get work done.

A chat will typically open with a 'hello' or 'good afternoon'. I've tried waiting out to see what follows, or immediately ask them 'hey, what's up?'. But it doesn't help to distinguish between small talk or work. I've dropped several people a link to no-hello, explaining that it would help me to know why I'm contacted and supposed to drop work to chat with them, but so far people don't seem to implement it, not even after reminders.

I've walked away from conversations as soon as they became small talk with 'I'm sorry, I need to work', or just ignoring it if the next message was 'how are you'. It has people continue writing messages at me, or they're pinging again at 13:55PM/15:48PM to ask for a reply or with other small talk.

I've gently explained that I people are the third person to interrupt this afternoon with non-work related things, and I can't talk with everyone and still get work done. I've reminded people of our dedicated small talk time, and that the conversation they're trying to have is not suited to have outside of those times. I've tried to reinforce that I still like them by pointing out we can talk about X during small talk time or when we're back at the office having lunch together.

I've already had people point out that 'the guidance says we should make time for small talk and staying connected' and that rebuffing these kinds of conversations is perceived as rather cold and rude, so I'm hesitant to again walk away or not reply. I'm hesitant to decline a conversation again with 'Sorry, this isn't about work, I need to get my work done, we can at dedicated small talk time' as people seem to have different expectations and have expressed their discontent with my rebuffing.

So, this question is two-fold: How do I gently cut small talk attempts outside of our planned daily moment short in a way that also manages my coworkers expectations so that they won't try again?

More technical solutions like turning off the chat clients aren't an option, my team lead wants me to be available on chat clients in case of work related things happening. The same goes for putting it on 'occupied' or 'absent' for the whole day, people start ignoring it because if it's there the whole day, it can't be true, you've probably forgotten to change your status.

  • 1
    Would setting aside some other time for this chitchat be an acceptable solution, or do you want to cut it out altogether?
    – AsheraH
    Apr 15, 2020 at 11:15
  • @AsheraH Given that we already have time set aside for chitchat, I'm aiming at cutting out all else besides that moment.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 15, 2020 at 11:17
  • Is it specifically addressed to you or is it in a group chat? Also what chat program?
    – Laurel
    Apr 15, 2020 at 15:34
  • 1
    You say you've tried waiting it out. What happens in those cases? Seems like the easiest thing to do is not reply if you are busy. It's a work problem, usually the next message will have some thing like "Are you busy? I've got a question about ..." and you can answer that. But if they don't follow up, you're good.
    – DaveG
    Apr 15, 2020 at 18:04
  • 1
    Are there any points in your day when you'd be open to a bit of chitchat, such as when switching tasks or taking a break?
    – Kat
    Apr 17, 2020 at 17:15

4 Answers 4


It sounds like simply ignoring messages isn't an option. In cases like this where I don't want to be interrupted, I've usually gone with a variant of "I'm pretty busy, what's up?". If the answer is "I've got an exception I need you to look at" or some such work issue, then I make a priority decision. But if it's chitchat, and chitchat is unavoidable, what I've gone with is scheduling it. In other words, "I am pretty busy right now, fill me in around 4pm or so?".

  • The small talk is already scheduled (we scheduled a longer daily standup to have a coffe break chitchat moment), so I'd rather not be interrupted to begin with, instead of rebuffing things several times a day with 'we can do this tomorrow at its designated time'. It's also my fault, I should probably have run this question through sandbox first, because it seems it isn't clear that rebuffing the small-talk with 'this is a type of conversation for the daily coffee break/lunch when we're back at the office' already hasn't worked for me.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Apr 16, 2020 at 11:08
  • 6
    @Tinkeringbell You may have to rinse and repeat a few times. It's still the right approach. If, each time someone messages you with chitchat you give a consistent message, they will learn. And of course you don't have to fit it to the standup schedule. You can put it on your schedule. Maybe lunchtime. Maybe a late afternoon time when you are normally losing steam and need to take a break anyway.
    – DaveG
    Apr 16, 2020 at 12:31

I'm not sure how to "gently turn down digital small-talk and prevent any new attempts at having it," given everything you have already tried. I read through the question, the other answer, and all the comments. It appears that your company is attempting to extend office protocol to the work-at-home situation. But it's not working. People are chatting all day instead of working. You yourself find this negatively impacts your own productivity to a fairly significant extent. It may be time for a chat with your superiors to decide on a new protocol for the new situation.

You emphasize your priorities:

  1. maintain friendly relationships with your co-workers as mandated by leadership.

  2. be available for work-related questions from your co-workers.

  3. complete your own assignments in a timely manner, which requires periods of uninterrupted concentration.

The company may need to implement rules and protocols to replace the structure that office walls normally provide. You indicate that there is a specified time for chit-chat, and that the No Hello method of communication would be ideal for work. Maybe in your chat with your superiors you can suggest that No Hello be implemented as mandatory for work and that chit-chat be restricted to the designated period. At the very least, it seems to me necessary for some protocol to be put in place that obligates your co-workers to respect messages indicating that "I'm busy and cannot be interrupted except for work related questions."

That is the best I know to suggest. I realize there is much about your situation I don't know, so take it with a grain of salt and use these suggestions at your own discretion.


I'd like to say that I'm actually much more on the chatty side than you seem to be, and do quite a bit of unscheduled small talk in this new WFH environment. That said, I'd very rarely ping somebody just for that -- I'd shoot them a work related question, and if I get a prompt, wordy answer (or sometimes "d'you wanna short call about this?") I might ask something more chatty as a follow-up and have some small talk.

But, just like everybody else, I also need some uninterrupted time for work, when I don't start chats and would prefer other people not try and start them with me. What other answers seem to be missing is that it seems you already found a solution to this in a physical office environment, you just need to figure out how to send the same signals "digitally".

Headphones - which you say your co-workers interpret as "deep in the work zone and not free to chat" - send a visible signal to the outside world that you'd prefer not to be disturbed right now without anybody needing to ask you to find out that you are busy. If you mention in the morning that you have a very busy day, it doesn't necessarily send the same signal ("He can't possibly concentrate for 8 hours non-stop. Everybody needs a break, let me check if he'd enjoy a little breather and a catch-up now.")

So I would suggest a solution that many of my work mates (and myself) started using when they got overflown with small-talk and ad-hoc meetings: schedule a time to work alone on particular projects. I (hope) every job has some tasks that require deep concentration, and some that don't really (responding to e-mails, admin stuff, sending documents off?). So, schedule single-person tasks with yourself that cover most of your days to "Work on project X/Y/Z". This should make your teams chat service (in my case, MS Teams) display your status as red and 'busy'. Leave an hour or two (around lunch time, some time mid-afternoon, whatever suits for you) every day unscheduled, and maybe an odd day here and there.

This strategy did wonders for me -- I noticed people automatically started pinging me with more pointed questions ("Can you let me know when available to discuss X?" or "I was told you're the person to talk to about Y, when would you be free"). If I sometimes actually have time (I'm still not "in the zone") and I take up the conversation straight away, they are delighted that I am talking to them during my 'busy' time, instead of disgruntled that I never seem to want to chat.

Additionally, after a couple of weeks of heavily scheduling self-meetings, I started very slowly decreasing those, and most of my co-workers didn't change their behaviour towards me much: I was getting more pointed pings, and much less of them. I will still book a full or half-day for "work on X" occasionally, am left in peace during by my workmates most times, but still manage some healthy chit-chat with them frequently enough to feel like I'm establishing workplace friendships with some people.


One option would be to mention in your stand up meeting something along the lines of "I have a lot to get done today, so I'm going to try to stay heads down on that unless someone has something critical they need to ask me."

Then you can feel free to ignore any messages that aren't critical, and just respond to them next time you actually have time. When you do you can preface your response with, "Hey, just got around to checking my messages since I've been so busy" to remind them of what you said earlier. If you do that they should be less likely to feel ignored, and more likely to be sympathetic to your schedule.

If you do take this approach, be sure to respond promptly to things that are actually important and time critical. That will show people that you are still an engaged and responsive part of the team for things that matter.

Over time they will realize that you aren't the sort of person that is responsive to chit-chat at any time of day, and that they shouldn't expect a quick response from you when they ask questions that aren't work related. In my experience people who chat like this are looking for other people who engage in the same way, and if you aren't one of those people, they will reduce the amount that they reach out to you.

One caveat to this approach. You may run the risk of people thinking that you aren't as much a part of the team as other people are. That said, it sounds like this is basically the approach you take in person, so it is likely no more risky than that was.

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