At a glance
Desk bombing – the act of dropping by a colleague’s desk unannounced – emerged as a buzzword in 2022.
Whether so-called desk bombers have a work-related question or want to know where you bought that shirt, unannounced drop-ins can influence productivity and relationships between work colleagues.
The dislike of desk bombing has only increased with the rise of hybrid work. Some workers are reluctant to return to the office at all, feeling that they simply cannot get as much done “at work”.
“During COVID-19, our focus changed. Isolated from others, we are now less accustomed – and perhaps less tolerant – of the interruptions in a typical office environment,” says Zarife Hardy, director at the Australian School of Etiquette.
In open-plan offices, there is also the risk that visiting one colleague at their desk can interrupt another colleague nearby who is deeply focused on a task.
Remote work does not always eliminate desk bombing, either. Instead, the “virtual” desk bomb has emerged, in the form of an unscheduled video call.
How interruptions affect productivity
The problem with desk bombing is not so much the act itself as the interruption it causes, especially when combined with ongoing distractions such as email, phone calls and messaging apps.
Think tank Next Work Innovation conducted a study on the cost of interruptions on German companies in 2022. The study found that employees are interrupted in their work every four minutes. After an interruption, the brain needs time to refocus. This refocusing time costs German companies about €58 billion (A$98 billion) per year, according to the study.
A University of California, Irvine study found that, while an interruption may only last a few seconds, the time it takes to refocus can be 23 minutes or more. In addition, an interruption of any kind will introduce a change in the “work pattern”.
Interruptions that have a shared context with the interrupted task can be perceived as beneficial, but their actual “disruption cost” is the same as for an off-topic interruption. The findings note that it only takes 20 minutes of interrupted performance for people to feel significantly higher stress, frustration and pressure.
Desk bombing vs problem solving
We are at work to work, says Hardy.
Organisational coach Donna McGeorge counters, “Human connections in the workplace are a good thing. With so much hybrid working, if you’re going to be in the office for some of the time, be prepared for conversation and be open to the small talk.”
Work is about that social connection, as well as relationship building and working towards a common purpose and meaning.
To many, the occasional visit from a colleague who wants a quick answer on something work-related should not be viewed as desk bombing in the truest sense.
Rather, a problematic desk bomber is typically someone who wants to socially interact but struggles to set or observe boundaries. They might not notice the body language or social cues that tell them their colleague is busy.
Try a friendly deterrent
For those who have a colleague who desk bombs them, it is OK to slightly exaggerate the task at hand to put them off. This avoids coming across as a grouch, says Hardy. If desk bombing becomes a problem, react in a way that is friendly and respectful but also firm.
“It’s best to have a pleasant look on your face and say something like, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m under the pump – can we have a chat at the end of the day?’ It’s about being honest but communicating in a friendly way,” she explains.
“If you don’t address the repeated interference, the risk is you feel frustrated and irritated, and people pick up on that. The mistake we make is to say in our heads, ‘They should know; they should understand’, but not everyone does,” adds McGeorge.
If the tables are turned, the best practice is to ask a colleague if now is a good time to talk. Tell them that the talk will only take up five minutes – and make sure it is only five minutes. If the colleague declines and suggests an alternative, accept it gracefully.
“What you shouldn’t do is pounce on someone,” says Hardy. “It’s like walking into someone’s bedroom – you should always knock on the door.”
6 ways to desk bomb for good
While any interruption can affect productivity, context matters. Is it ever OK to show up unannounced?
1. Speedy resolution
Face-to-face contact – in person or online – can be productive if used to resolve an issue in a single conversation. This is particularly the case with issues that have a wide-ranging impact or where a stakeholder needs to be alerted immediately.
2. Too long, didn’t read
Face-to-face communication may be a better option than penning a potentially labour-intensive email to explain something complex. Some topics are easier to discuss verbally rather than in text, and it is easy to overlook an important email.
3. Too long between meetings
If waiting for a scheduled meeting would cause too much of a delay to a critical piece of work, dropping in could be used sparingly to save time.
The immediacy of speech in a brainstorming session can help colleagues to be more spontaneous and creative. Brainstorming is also thought to help auditors in assessing and identifying risks. That said, brainstorming sessions can always be scheduled.
5. Going “AFK” for health
Engagement between colleagues can help remind people to take a break from their computer screen and go “away from keyboard” (AFK). Prolonged computer use without regular breaks is known to cause discomfort and have the potential to affect physical health.
6. Relationship building
Spontaneous, unstructured engagement between colleagues may help to build relationships and cultivate a sense of community. Research from workplace culture firm OC Tanner found that a sense of community helps employees to feel more like they “belong”.
A sense of belonging both lowers the probability of employees actively looking for a new job and significantly increases their estimated tenure.
Quiz: Are you a desk bomber?
1. How often do you head to a colleague’s desk (or video call them) unannounced?
A. Whenever I feel like it
B. Now and then, but only when I know they are not busy
C. Rarely, and only to discuss something important
2. You have an urgent question for a colleague about a task you are completing. What do you do?
A. Head straight for their desk or video call them – it is the quickest way to get on with the task
B. Message them to ask when they have time to talk
C. Ask the question via Teams, Slack or similar
D. Compose a lengthy email explaining the task, then ask your question at the end
3. A colleague has returned from work following a globetrotting holiday. What do you do?
A. Video call them or head to their desk as soon as you have a moment free
B. Send them a message to welcome them back and ask how their holiday was
C. Ask them how their holiday was the next time you meet in passing
D. Nothing – it is not work-related, and you are not really interested
4. Your colleague went above and beyond working on a task that has an impact on your work. How might you acknowledge their efforts?
A. Pop over to thank them profusely right away
B. Send them a message or email to say thanks
C. Thank them the next time you see them in passing
D. You do not – everyone works hard
5. When a new person joins your team, how do you welcome them?
A. Approach them face-to-face on their first day as soon as they have a minute to themselves
B. Send them a message to say hello
C. Introduce yourself when you meet them in passing or in the same meeting
D. Wait for them to introduce themselves
6. You’ve been regularly watching the same TV show as your colleague, and there was a huge plot twist on the episode that aired last night. What do you do?
A. Make a beeline for their desk as soon as they arrive
B. Message them immediately and include a gif about the jaw-dropping reveal
C. It depends on the relationship – if it is someone you know very well, you might reach out when time permits
D. Nothing – you would never tell a colleague about your TV habits anyway
7. What is a reasonable amount of time to socialise with colleagues during work hours, excluding break times?
A. As long as you still get your work done, timing does not matter
B. Up to 15 minutes
C. About 5 minutes
D. No time – you are here to work