Less-offensive Ways to Stop Coworkers Interrupting You


This could get prickly.

Three cactus plants on a white table

Five or so years ago, open-plan offices became the rage. “They’re a boon for productivity,” they said. “Collaboration will be unprecedented,” they cried. Research later showed this move was as witless as the introduction of cane toads to stifle the cane beetle. Not only does a lack of personal desk space cast a blow to productivity, it’s also bad for employees’ wellbeing.

PhD candidate Jungsoo Kim and Professor Richard de Dear from Sydney University conducted a study in 2013 called Workplace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade off in open-plan offices. “Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration,” the paper states.

The New York Times writer Molly Young, who is also a director at eyewear start-up Warby Parker, once relayed a period in which she would throw on a fez as a signal to coworkers that she was not to be disturbed. As someone who requires “quiet time” to get a substantial amount of my job done, I cheered the move and considered what my own version of this might be.

Here are a few ideas for regaining your time (and sanity) when you find yourself becoming very “popular” at work.

Wear a ridiculous hat
You’ll have to explain to people in advance what the hat is for. You’ll also have to endure a fortnight’s worth of jibes about how “you’re sooooo busy”. But following that, you’ll find a strange-hat work rhythm that fits. Keep the hat on for as long as it takes to complete your task, though use sparingly so as to not seem anti-social.


Creative a Google form and have colleagues submit queries to you
OK, this will probably cause some offence, but it will keep your inbox slim and you can opt to have all responses aggregate in a spreadsheet. It’s particularly useful if you’re in a job in which one type of interruption is common. For example, I receive a bunch of article pitches each day, so now they all come to me via the form.

Petition to work from home one day per fortnight
For some, this will be a long shot, but hey – what if your boss says yes? That’ll grant you one very sweet interruption-free day for knocking off those lengthier tasks. If your formal request to work from home tanks, excuse yourself to the nearest cafe and tether Internet data to your laptop via your mobile phone.

Turn off your emails for an hour per day
Once it’s off, notice the difference it makes to your productivity. Remember to open it up again or you might miss a crucial lead, opportunity or update. We advise against this option if you’re in a time-sensitive/life-saving role.

Invest in a “do not disturb” cloak
Perhaps the most extreme of options, purchase a wizard-like cloak and introduce it to workmates as a tool that can be shared around. Perhaps Betty has a report to finish on Wednesday; she gets to wear it then. Say Anthony needs to sketch some ad ideas for a potential client on Monday afternoon – it’s his ’til the job is done. So long as everyone’s in on it, this can reduce those littler interruptions that add up over a day.

Head to your office “break-out” space
You’ll be pleased to know the Collective Hub break-out space is where I wrote this article. This unofficial “do not disturb” zone features a 3.5-seater couch, mod-artsy cushions, and a roving stool. If your workplace doesn’t have one, raise it with HR as something to implement down the track. Ours gets a lot of use, if that’s anything to go by.

Read More: Turns Out The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard

April Smallwood

Digital editor Collective Hub

April is the digital editor of Collective Hub.


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