According to TripIt I traveled over 120 days last year. That may sound like a lot, but the bright side is that when I’m not traveling, I’m likely sitting at home in my pj’s with a big cup of coffee. So, 120+ days of travel really doesn’t bother me at all. However, that means that around 240 days a year I’m at home, and when I’m working, it’s just me in my office sitting in front of my computer. This allows me to get a LOT more work done than going into the office every morning, fighting traffic on the way to work, getting interrupted by office talk and people stopping by, and fighting traffic on the way home. However, this somewhat disconnected state of work existence makes one skill completely critical to every aspect of what I do… Communication… (I’m guessing the title of the blog gave that away). So, any hiccup in communication can have an amplified affect.
In fact, every job I’ve had since graduating college has involved me working from home part of the time. You’d be surprised by how many people I’ve worked with over the years that are not effective communicators. It seems to be a fairly simple skill that many people just fail to assign the correct priority. I’m not suggesting at all that there is any malice or ineptitude in these individuals, I just see it as something that many do not realize the possible impacts of “I’ll get around to it” styles of communication. I’m also not saying that I’m the poster child for what you should do as I sometimes catch myself not responding as effectively as I should. However, when I realize that I make efforts to correct it.
As a client, consultant, employee, and even a boss I’ve seen a myriad of communication faux pas and sometimes no matter how many times you bring it up people still don’t seem to understand just how critical communication can be (or that they could do it much better). I promise, just a minute of your time can make the difference between dysfunction and harmony.
So, this blog post is not just a rambling rant… well, maybe it is, but that’s not the intent. Let me give you some common sense advice on communicating better and creating a workplace utopia.
Let’s say you get an email from your client that says their web site is down and they need your help to fix it! So, you being the stalwart consultant rush to their aid and spend 3 hours fixing an issue that would have taken a mere mortal twice as long! You proudly respond to the client 3 hours later that you have fixed their problem!
But wait? Why is the client not happy? You fixed their problem and faster than most? Oooooh.. yeah… let’s back up a step. Upon reading the email, the correct reaction would have been to first respond to the client with a message letting them know you received their email and are looking into their problem and if at all possible give them an ETA. This ensures the client is not wondering what’s going on and can at least give a status update to their bosses to let them know that their issue is actively being worked on.
Let’s say one of your developers has a question about the task he/she is working on and you are too busy to respond in detail. Let them know it will be a while before you can get them the information they need so they can move on to something else and work more efficiently.
And clients, you don’t get off so easy. Let’s say you have a consultant billing you at $200 an hour for work on a project and they send you an email asking for clarification about a requirement and it’s holding them up from working. You might want to let them know immediately if you can’t get back to them for a few hours so they can get to work on something else so they aren’t billing you for waiting.
Let’s say that issue ends up taking days to fix instead of hours. Well, don’t just leave the client wondering about what’s going on! Communicate regularly with them to let them know the status of their issue and make sure they have an ETA for when it will be resolved. If it looks like you are going to miss that ETA tell them BEFORE it’s passed so they can be prepared and effectively communicate to others who need to know.
Ineffective communication can have a domino affect. Bad communication usually does not just impact one person. You would be amazed how quickly tense situations can be resolved with good communication. A missed deadline with two weeks notice is SOOOO much better than a missed deadline the day it’s due!
People are busy. Words can get in the way. Say what you need to say succinctly in as few sentences as possible. If you are one of those people who can’t help but write novels, at least give the readers digest version in the first couple of sentences. If you can’t respond succinctly, you risk NONE of your emails getting read because people will automatically know you ramble and just delete them.
You don’t want to be that guy that gets the special email filter do you?? Trust me, it’s not fun.
Respond using the same media if possible
Generally people communicate in the method they are either most comfortable with or have access to. If you get an email, respond with an email if you can. If you get a phone call, call them back. Maybe they sent you an email because their phone is dead or called you because they don’t have internet access?
Don’t assume if it was important they would have called/used some other form of communication
So, I ‘get’ this thought process. “Well, it couldn’t be too important or they would have called?” Maybe so, or maybe they are in a meeting and need an answer quickly so they sent you an email on their phone? Don’t make assumptions, if taking 30 seconds to respond to an email is going to alleviate someone of some heartburn, take the time to do it.
Communicate unavailability during normal working hours
I know, I know… all of these sound like common sense and you guys are wondering why I’m wasting the bits to type it out, but you would surprised how many people don’t do any of these things! If you aren’t going to be available when people expect you to be available, let them know! I had an employee who didn’t call into the morning meeting. No one knew where they were. They didn’t answer their phone or emails. We were actually worried that something might have happened. Turns out they weren’t feeling well so they spent the day in bed. Communicate! Let’s somebody know! Heck, if you are feeling that sick that you can’t make a phone call or send an email, ask a spouse to do it. Don’t just not show up!
Likewise, let’s say you have a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day, let the people you are actively working with know you won’t be around or set up an auto-responder on your email. Don’t just disappear off the radar, especially if you are in the critical path for an active project. Communicate! Be courteous!
When all else fails, at least set the proper expectations
Okay, so… maybe you are annoyed at this post. Maybe you are one of those people who are just habitually bad about responding to emails. Maybe you are one of “those” people who only check email twice a day. Well, if that’s what floats your boat and you know you aren’t going to change, then at LEAST set those expectations. Let people know that you only read your emails at 8am, noon, and 5pm so that they won’t get a response any other time. Let them know that you just suck at responding to email and that they should call if it’s important. Communicate your suckiness at communication!
If people know what they can expect, it’s going to alleviate stress, anxiety, and it will help them be comfortable working with you.
Maybe you can relate…
When it comes down to it, treat every person as you’d like to be treated yourself. Do YOU want to be waiting around for a response or have to chase someone down to get an answer to your question?
If you are still having a hard time understanding how your inaction can make people feel, let’s look at a really superb example that most of us can relate to from our dating days (especially for us adorable geeks).
You just met the cutest girl (or guy). You talked for hours and have SOOO much in common. You felt all tingly inside and you did a happy dance in your head when they gave you their phone number. Remember when you forced yourself to wait the mandatory two days and finally called them and waited by the phone for it to ring? Remember the anxiety you felt?
“Just ring dagnabit!”
“Does she not like me?”
“Am I not important enough?“
“I can’t call back, I’ll look too needy!”
“Ugh! I hate this!“
Remember that pit you felt in your stomach and how you felt like such an idiot afterwards? No? That was just me?? oh.. umm.. this just got awkward…….
Regardless, imagine that’s how you made a client feel who was having problems with their system? Maybe you’re on the critical patch for a project and your project manager is crawling up the walls because they don’t know the status of the project and they are wondering if they’ll hit that critical deadline? Just take a minute to reach out and respond!
Remember that relief you felt when they did finally call back and said “Hey! sorry, I couldn’t get to my phone, but I was thinking about you too!”… Sigh…. anxiety gone… all levels back to normal… wow..I really was just being silly…
Give your clients, employees, and managers that same warm and fuzzy feeling.
“Hey, I’m in a meeting, but I’ll jump on this right afterwards.”
“We’re looking into this and will let you know what we find by the end of the day.”
“I’m running late this morning.”
“I know my deadline is next week, but at this rate I’m not going to make it.”
Communicate often, communicate succinctly, just communicate!