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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

When You Should (and Shouldn't) Send an Email: The New Office Communication Rules

How many times have you had this conversation go down?

Co-worker: “Did you get x task done? We need the report now.”
You: “Uh, no. When did you tell me about that?”
Co-worker: “Oh, I emailed you about it 30 minutes ago. Did you not get it?”

Obviously, it’s an extremely frustrating situation. How were you supposed to comb through the dozens of emails you’ve received in the past couple of hours alone to find the one crucial message that had a task that was due pronto? And if you use email the smart way—only checking your inbox a couple times a day—you may not have even seen the message yet!

It’s a common dilemma, one that anyone in the workforce has probably come across at some point or another (if not regularly). It also gets at an important question: What form is communication is appropriate for real-time requests versus tasks that just need to be completed in the coming days?

To solve this question of office communication etiquette, Cyrus Stoller, a programmer, has a system that you should consider implementing among your co-workers. The breakdown is pretty simple:

  • If you need something done within 30 minutes, call the person.
  • If you need something done within two hours, text the person.
  • If you need something done within the workday, IM the person.
  • If you need something done within the next couple of days, email the person.

While the actual breakdown may vary depending on how your office works (for example, in a small office, it might make sense just to stop by someone’s desk rather than call), what Stoller is getting at is key: Email should not be the default means of communication for getting across anything that needs to be known or dealt with in real time.

Of course, this system is pretty easy for you to implement when working with close colleagues and clients, but how do you get other people in the office to play along? Here are a couple of things to try:

  • Set up an email auto-responder that tells people how to get in touch with you if the matter needs to be dealt with within the next hour or two.
  • If you come across emails asking for real-time action, politely remind your co-workers that you’d prefer this message had been relayed via phone call or text, as you may not get to their email in time if another emergency strikes.
  • If you’re in some sort of management role, set standards across the office. Have your employees openly talk about how they’d like others to communicate with them if something needs to be done instead of having everyone assume that email is okay.

Finally, remind everyone that a system like this really is a win-win. Nobody is chained to their inboxes, and an urgent task will never go undone again.

Photo of city courtesy of Shutterstock.