Funky closed offices and workstations © by Campaign Monitor (2008)

Desk intruders. You know them: the people who somehow figure out exactly when you are at your most productive moment and intercept it by stopping at your desk (sometimes just to chat), or tap you on your shoulder, or yell your name. They want to see if you got the email they sent earlier or if you can help them later on or if you want to go take a break. Sometimes their requests are important, but mostly for them and without any regard for your current focus. These people are productivity vampires and they come out during the day and they are in offices everywhere.

Here are a few steps to take to stop the “desk intruder” in your office:

  1. Use a signal. When you’re in the zone and absolutely do not want interruption, put a sign on your desk. We use a piece of cardboard that we hang like a flag that says “WIRED IN” — the sign is tall, has large letters and contrasting colors so that it is visible from a distance. It not only keeps the casual pedestrian from stopping at your desk, but also halts the person at the other end of the office from yelling your name. We educated all of our employees on the importance of the sign and the respect they should show it for the overall productivity of the office.
  2. Establish communication pipelines. How many times have you chatted with an employee about something that could have been addressed with a short email? People inherently want their questions to be answered first — one of the root causes of desk intrusions. After a chat with an employee, candidly and tactfully tell them that topics like this one could be simply handled through an email. The goal is not to kill any open dialogue that you have with employees, but rather to clarify the medium through which certain topics should be discussed. Set a precedent: if an employee calls your extension and leaves a voicemail, reply back with an email.
  3. Put up walls. Cubicles seem lame but they provide great protection from intruders. They are like fortresses of productivity. They provide a physical guard between yourself and the intruder as well as block many audio and visual distractions. If you don’t like the aesthetics of a traditional cubicle, try using something creative. We toyed around with everything from plants to hockey boards, until we finally came across a company that creates building blocks out of recycled cardboard.
  4. Schedule office hours. Establish times when employees can stop by your desk, and vice versa. Though the “open-door” policy makes everyone approachable, it’s harmful from a productivity perspective. The trick is to respect these times, both as a potential drop-in and as someone who may have a drop-in.
  5. Don’t desk intrude! Shockingly, I realized that I was one of the biggest desk intruders of the office; as soon as I needed something, my gut was to yell “Hey, Julie!” or “Hey, Brian!” When they didn’t respond, I would walk over to their desk, tap their shoulder and get what I wanted. Once this self-realization occurred, it was much easier to implement the given suggestions. You can’t expect employees to respect the sign, send you emails or not interrupt each others’ flow if you are interrupting theirs. You cannot overlook the importance of your employee’s zone. You hired them to be productive and you are paying them for it. Lead by not intruding.

Sean Devlin is the cofounder and director of product development for Front Rush, which provides web-based and mobile applications to over 3000+ college teams nationwide to help manage their recruits, roster, alumni relations and athletic compliance.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC leads #FixYoungAmerica, a solutions-based movement that aims to end youth unemployment and put young Americans back to work.