There are so many occasions when we need peace and quiet at work. We need to not be disturbed. There are also times when we’re in a bad place and need time to be calm and think.
Or maybe we need to make some difficult phone calls – work-related, or not.
So how to draw polite boundaries at work? How do we get what we need, which is to not be disturbed, while not offending others?
Start with telling them why you don’t want to be disturbed, and let your colleagues know how long you plan to take. For example, say: “I must finish a budget planning by 3 p.m. and will therefore not be available for questions for the next two hours.“
You need silence for a business call
Sometimes, we need to make business calls that require privacy. At other times, you simply don’t want everyone to hear what you are saying in your phone call.
One way to politely indicate your expectations to the rest of your colleagues is to make a small announcement. You could say:
“Hey, folks, I need to call Joe Johnson about this project, which is going a little haywire. I am going to close my door for a little while to make the call.”
Odds are, your team may know that this is a difficult subject, and will completely understand you are making a touchy, business-related call.
If you have small individual offices, you can make a note, clearly stating, “Please do not disturb. I am on a phone call. Should be available at (time).” Tape the note to your door.
This scenario becomes more complicated, though, in today’s open-plan offices. Like many others, you may not have a door — and therefore, absolutely no privacy. However, you still need to make a phone call.
In this scenario, try to book a private room. Hopefully, if you are in an open-plan office, you can still book a conference room to make your call. Some have group calendars where you can simply book your time; others have a more old-fashioned approach, such as taping a note to the door.
It’s silly, but we have found that the “note on the door” approach is a little more effective. Even when a door is closed, people will open them and peek inside.
If your office has glass walls, that will help people to see that the office is not available – but if it’s the traditional conference room, you may have better luck with the ol’ note on the door.
Personal phone calls
While we all try to minimize the need to make personal phone calls at work, it simply is not possible to avoid them all. Sometimes, you need to make an appointment for personal services (i.e., a haircut, a dentist appointment, etc.) However, sometimes we need to call our doctor or check with daycare, the school, or a parent. Life happens!
As a responsible worker, you want to minimize your personal calls. Therefore, you will want to make them on a break, if possible. Mid-morning, or mid-afternoon, the lunch hour is not ideal, because, odds are, the very place you are trying to call will also be at lunch.
Our suggestion would be to take your call, go outside, or to a private room, and make your call.
Hopefully, you have a good relationship with your co-workers, and you can let them know the reason for your phone call in case a supervisor should come along, looking for you. We usually just say:
“I’ll be back in ten — I need to call my doctor’s office.”
Everyone has to do this at some point in their lives, so they should be understanding. Weirdly, and perhaps wrongly, giving a co-worker a bit of information like that stops the flow of gossip. People are more intrigued by your personal phone calls if you don’t give a reason. Again, that’s wrong, but it’s human nature.
You have to meet a deadline
Now, onto the next scenario for asking not to be disturbed at work – often, we have projects on deadlines.
If you need to re-type a four-page budget and have five minutes to get it out the door (yes, this actually happened last week), then having a co-worker decide to tell you about a funny thing their kid/dog/idiot brother did is bad timing. We don’t want to hurt their feelings by interrupting them.
If you are beginning the rush, politely announce it.
“I need to get this budget out, so I am closing my door to work on it.”
Or, for those of you who are door-less, still, announce your intention. You could say:
“I don’t want anyone to think I am being rude, but I have five minutes to finish this budget, and so I’m just going to focus right now.”
Some people just think that your needs do not apply to them. For those die-hards, if you are working frantically, you can say:
“I’m sorry, but I can’t talk right now. Can I please come to find you in ten minutes? Thanks!”
And then go back to what you are doing. Ignore them. At that point, you have been polite, and they are the ones being rude.
You just need quiet time
Our brains need to read, think, create, and focus. It’s hard to do when someone is talking or someone is constantly knocking on your door.
In the open-plan office, you need headphones.
We recommend getting a good pair of noise-canceling headphones to save your sanity. Now, to use them politely, you should probably say, when donning them, something like:
“Well, I need to focus on this budget”
… (or whatever you’re doing) and put them on. That’s a modern way of saying, in essence, “I’m tuning you out”.
If you are fortunate enough to have a door, we again recommend the note-taped-to-the-door method. Simply write on it, for example, “Working on deadline – please do not disturb. Available at (time).”
Here is another idea: Mute them!
Mute your notifications. You may be able to put up a notification that will advise people, electronically, “Out of office. Back at __”.
You can also do this with your voice mail – just do a quick message stating:
“Hi, this is Susan. I am unavailable until 11:30. If you need to speak with me, please leave me a message, and then I will call you back when I am available.”
That’s not rude! It is just managing your time,
Another solution: Put up a sign. Have a door? Well, there are loads of signs out there that state whether you are available, or not. Nail up one of those and see if that works.
Establish set times
If you are being disturbed at work a great deal and it is interfering with your productivity, it may be something you can bring up during staff meetings. A polite way to phrase this might be:
“You guys are awesome, but I am finding that I need an hour at the end of each day to make sure my deadlines are met. I wanted to be transparent and not offend anyone. Anyway, I am going to be (closing my door, putting on my headphones, remoting, etc.) for that last hour each day.”
If this doesn’t do the trick and you are still being disturbed, you need to speak with your supervisor about possible solutions. Your supervisor may be able to enforce what you said in the staff meeting.
Another solution might be to have a hybrid schedule, wherein you work at home in part and in-office in part.
If it’s really bad, your supervisor may need to speak with the people who constantly interrupt you or barge in on your private time. If you’re a great worker, then your boss should be supportive of your needs for some “do not disturb” time when you need it.
Lead by example
Finally, take a look at yourself. Do you respect others’ needs? If you do not, then why should they respect your need to not be disturbed? It works both ways, of course.
Also, you may want to take a look at how you structure your day. Could you switch things up so that you “sync” with the rest of your team when you need quiet time? Or, are you looking to have your “do not disturb” time at a completely inconvenient time?
Sometimes, we need to see if we are part of the problem and make sure we aren’t blaming others for our inability to have some quiet time.
Above all; try to keep your sense of humor. There is enough office drama out there, so there is no point in adding to it. It’s the office, not your home, and some things are beyond our control.
Katie Holmes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.