You likely have a clear sense from the first few weeks at a new job what tasks and assignments are designated urgent. You know what’s high priority and how deadlines are handled. Maybe you’ve got long-term projects that you and your manager discuss on a weekly basis.

You’re a pro at managing your to-do list, and you know what you can leave for the next day, week, or quarter and what absolutely must be completed before you leave the office. You also know the email protocol: You don’t need to check your inbox over the weekend. But you are required to respond to clients during non-business hours.

The only thing you’re not sure about is what happens if there’s a work emergency over the weekend?

Ah, the good ol’ work emergency. What does that even mean? And what do you do about it if it happens outside of the stated office hours? Do you email a colleague? Your boss? CC someone in another department who you think can help or who should at least be in-the-know?

All of the above, of course, depends on the nature of the emergency and your particular workplace. Just as you know your to-do list back and front, you should also have a sense of what can wait until morning—or Monday—and what can’t.

At a previous job, as much as I loathed waking up on Saturday morning and checking my work email, I knew there was no way around it. Our copyedit team worked until late on Friday nights, and I knew if there were any questions on any of my pieces, answering them first thing Saturday was a whole lot better than dealing with fires on Sunday. The expectation at that organization was that we were all on top of email, no matter the hour or day.

If it’s not totally clear to you how your company expects issues resolved, use your best judgment—is it a matter that’s stressing you out? Did you discover a glaring error on the report you sent to clients and would rectifying it before the weekend’s over be in everyone’s best interest?

A good rule of thumb is asking yourself the following:

  1. Is there revenue at stake?
  2. Does this make the company look bad externally?
  3. Is this problem going to get worse the longer I wait?

If you answered yes to any of those, then reach out to your colleague or boss or whoever should be looped in.

The best medium?

For most of us, that’s going to be email. (Unless you have strong reason to believe that your organization is made up of people who don’t at least glance at their inbox again until Monday at 9 AM.)

If it’s a matter you’re particularly concerned with, consider a subject line that includes the word “Timely,” “Urgent,” “Important,” or “Please respond.” If you’re 100% positive that you need input or instructions from someone before you can proceed with troubleshooting, the latter is especially handy. It indicates to the receiver that it can’t wait.

Email isn’t the only way to go though. Depending on your relationship with the parties you need to involve to handle the situation, you may choose texting or chatting on a group app.

Again, there’s a lot to be said for knowing the medium your party prefers—and this is true whether you’re in the office on a Tuesday morning or hanging out with the family on a Sunday afternoon.

If you’re currently in the middle of an emergency and reading this like, “How the heck would I know that?”—resolve your problem first. Then find time over the next few days to ask your boss a few key questions:

  1. How would you define an emergency?
  2. How do you prefer I contact you?
  3. Is there anyone else I should contact?

Knowing the answer to these questions helps you avoid the last-minute freak-out of “What do I do? Who do I call/email/text/chat?” and instead, get ahead of the game.

And yes, a lot of this is common sense, which, in a true work catastrophe, can be hard to dredge up. Hence, the importance of knowing the plan in advance and playing by the structure your team has set up. If you do that, it’s unlikely you’ll run into anything that leaves you flustered or freaking out.

Photo of woman checking email courtesy of Steve Prezant/Getty Images.

Updated 6/19/2020