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Can I say:

What are we looking at? Minutes, hours, or days?

in order to get a rough estimate on how long something will take?

Or is "What are we looking at?" part of some other common construction?

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    It sounds natural and idiomatic to this US English speaker. To be looking at something means "observing something that may happen in the near future", so it works fine here. – stangdon Aug 9 '16 at 12:14
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You might ask a doctor how long someone has to live:

What are we looking at here: weeks or months or years?

but you could also say

What are we talking about here: weeks or months or years?

(Here is not necessary, but emphasizes the topic currently under discussion.)

Both questions can be used without a reference to time periods in other contexts: What are we looking at? A silver beetle? or What are we talking about: the magazine or the rock group?

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    It should probably be noted that this type of request with a series of listed options often is asking more for the scale of the estimate instead of the estimate itself. – Jed Schaaf Aug 9 '16 at 14:52
  • It is usually asking for the time estimate itself, but with the implication that, "it doesn't need to be exact at all". If the asked person knew it was exactly 3 days, people would typically answer with "3 days", not simply "days". – Tim S. Aug 9 '16 at 17:24
  • Your last paragraph uses a more literal meaning of the phrases, where the original was idiomatic. – Adeptus Aug 10 '16 at 5:56
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What are we looking at? is an idiom used in a variety of situations - usually to ask for a concise explanation or appraisal of a situation, or for a concise answer to a question without any preamble.

If a person is taken to hospital very quickly in an ambulance, and is transported inside, the first thing the doctor might say is What are we looking at? which means please tell me quickly and clearly everything I need to know about this person.

It can also be a request for the cost/price of something without a detailed explanation, which is another kind of an appraisal.

If a person has to pay for something and they don't know the price, because it is quite complicated (for example, repairing a car with many parts that were fixed), they may ask What are we looking at? while taking out their wallet.

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  • is it a colloquial idiom? can you use it in professional e-mails? – Bananach Aug 9 '16 at 13:14
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    Its somewhat casual, but not unprofessional, so probably fine in an email to coworkers or subordinates. If you want to up the formality, just be more explicit: "can you give me a better estimate for the completion of this task?" – BradC Aug 9 '16 at 13:54
  • The expression does not necessarily request concision or detail. The hospital/doctor answer could be general and simple: Possible heart attack. – Jim Reynolds Aug 9 '16 at 14:12
  • I think in that case the answer encompasses all of the required detail. The conciseness comes from them answering directly, rather than perhaps explaining the circumstances in which the patient was found, how they got the patient back to the hospital, and finally some theory on what might be the issue. – NibblyPig Aug 9 '16 at 15:15
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The existing answers (including the accepted one) overlook that the phrase

"what are we looking at?"

Is actually a shortened version of the phrase:

"what timescale are we looking at?"

The follow-up questions (options) then give a selection of possible answers/ranges to give the responder an indication of the level of precision being requested.

In the other examples it is the omitted word which changes. For example, when considering a patient the sentence becomes "what illness are we looking at?", and when taking your car to a mechanic it becomes "what damage/work are we looking at?".

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2

The basic meaning of "look at" here is

Examine (a matter) and consider what action to take

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/look #2.1

It doesn't necessarily involve the literal meaning of "looking at a physical object".

In the OP's sentence, the speaker is probably asking for information on how long some activity will take, in order to decide whether or not to approve or authorize starting work on it.

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