Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I work for a busy law office that manages hundreds of files for large corporations daily. The work is very detail oriented, and even the slightest issues can set us back tremendously.
I supervise a group of five other people, all of whom have been with the firm for less than 9 months. Since I developed all the processes our team follows, I am by default the go-to person for questions. I get questions not only from my team, but the other teams in our department as well. On any given day, I say I'd get at least 50 emails asking me "what if" or "how come" types of questions.
As a supervisor, I still have my own set of work to handle aside from supervising the work that others do on my team. Often we get rush files from our clients, and because they need to be processed very quickly and with 100% accuracy, I will do them myself as to avoid my team members' doing them incorrectly -- or answering numerous questions that will come up if I rely on someone else to do them.
The problem is that while I am working diligently to finish rush requests from clients, my team members find it difficult to understand that when I am trying to focus on these projects I do not have the time to answer their questions or talk them through their issues. I hate to be unapproachable, so I will typically still answer questions even though I'm already swamped. My department has an "accessibility" mantra, and being helpful and communicative is our number one priority. I have no problem being communicative, but I need peace and quiet here and there to just get to my own work.
Is it unprofessional if I tell my team, "OK everyone, for the next two hours, I'm working on an important project, so asking me questions is off limits"? Or do I just need to grin and bear it as the life of a supervisor?
It's absolutely not unprofessional. In fact, it's often necessary. Managers get interrupted all the time, and if you don't carve out some time to concentrate, you'll never be able to.
Schedule yourself some work blocks -- meetings with yourself that you hold as inviolate as you would a meeting with someone else. Use that time to focus on the things that require concentration without interruption. These might be a few three-hour blocks per week, or they might be two-hour blocks each day, or whatever makes the most sense in your context. Then let your staff know that you'll be busy during that time and they should hold their questions until afterward unless it's truly urgent. And if you do get interrupted during that time, it's fine to say, "I'm in a work block right now, so if this isn't urgent, would you check back with me in an hour?"
You do want your staff to feel comfortable coming to you with questions, and you don't want them to spend hours struggling if a 30-second conversation with you would solve the problem, but you also want to train them to help themselves as much as possible and save up their questions for convenient times to the extent feasible, and to protect your own time when you need to.
Another thing: If a lot of these interruptions are coming in the form of email, you might be creating some of the problem yourself. Most people don't expect instant answers to emails, and getting an answer later that day or the next is just fine. If you're feeling obligated to respond to emails as soon as they come in, that might be an internally generated problem, not an external one.
Of course, that depends on your office culture, which brings me to the next point: Talk to your boss. You don't want to start carving out work blocks and taking longer to answer emails and then discover that your boss hates this new work style. So talk to her, explain the problem, explain what you're planning to do to address it, and ask if she has any objections. Most managers won't. Some will. If yours does, you want to know this now.
Two other things to think about:
* Are there ways you could head off some of these questions? Could you create a FAQ or other documentation and direct people to check there first?
* Does your team need more training? You say that you're hesitant to give them some types of work. Is that because you really should be the only doing it, or would an ideal team be taking some of that on by now? It's possible that you either need to give them more training (which will require more of your time but will pay off in the long run) or that your staff members aren't working at the level that you need them to be working at. That's worth figuring out.
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