Urgency: the double-edged sword


As communication technologies have created environments of instant information transfer, the pressure to react to that information has exploded. This has happened faster than most people have been able to create systems to deal with it, and just when you think you got to grips another technology comes and smashes your house of cards. The core problem here is not so much the technology (people learn how to use a messenger app just as easily as they learned to use the fax back in the day), the problem is that the habits people form with the technology are often not thought through. We humans are designed to react to stimulus to act, but in an environment where that stimulation is constant we risk choosing the wrong stimulus to respond to or at worst paralyze entirely. In many office environments where I have coached I found the same culture: all communications are presumed to be equally urgent and expect instant response. This is particularly true of email, but other communication technologies also suffer from the same lack of insight into the impression of urgency. In this article I will give some guidelines on which tools and habits PEP® WorldWide recommends to use with which levels of urgency.

Choose your weapon wisely, from most to least urgent

The phone

How you communicate determines how the recipient is going to react, so use this knowledge with forethought. If something is REALLY urgent, then nothing replaces a phone call. Walking to that person’s desk would be even better but in many environments, we simply don’t have that luxury. I am still amazed how often people fear picking up the phone and will default to email out of fear of talking with a live person. Of course, you may need to email over some attachments, but it’s the phone call which drives the recipient to action where all the voice queues and mannerisms can be used to best effect. This human touch to communication is often lost in an email (emoji are fun but not always appropriate or accurate). If you need something to desperately get done in the next hour, and email is not good enough because who knows if the recipient is in a meeting or for whatever reason won’t get to your email. More likely the recipient also has a full inbox has no means of finding out that your email is much more urgent than the other emails with exclamation marks and ‘URGENT’ in the subject which are all overused anyway. On the flip side, know that when you call someone or come to their desk, you are disturbing their workflow. So, in the interest of a harmonious and efficient relationship, think whether it is also worth that person’s time to be interrupted.

The messaging app

Whether it is Skype for Business, WhatsApp or any other instant messaging/chat app they all have the same common feature: short messages which interrupt the recipient with some stimulus. This can be used when the urgency is a little less than instant, or the information you need is quite short like an answer to a quick question. While most messaging apps can nowadays save conversations in the long term, it is not ideal of the kind of communication where you need a paper trail, for that use email. For the younger generation in the work place a messaging app has become the preferred method of communication over email and the phone. Having an online chat is preferable for a quick back and forth that you don’t want to clog your inbox with nor disturb those sitting around you with. I do recommend to most companies to have a messaging app as it drastically cuts down on the unnecessary emails when used right. But it’s double edged: you will always be disturbing the recipient (even if you can wait a couple of minutes for them to respond) and creating a level of urgency where you may consider on reflection is unwarranted: could the answer to your question not wait a day? On the other hand, I have come across clients who have tons of emails in their inbox or tasks in their task manager ‘just waiting’ for another tiny piece of information from a third party before action can be taken. Some people are reluctant to pick up the phone in such a circumstance as they don’t want to disturb for such a small and not urgent thing, but they also know that they will just be adding to the piles of email which go unanswered, until it is of course too late. A chat message for this is ideal, on the condition that you know the other person is open for the disturbance. So here are some ‘must do’ tips if you use a chat app:

  • Keep a habit of changing your status to reflect your workflow. Most apps have this functionality: put yourself as available, do not disturb, be right back, away, etc.
  • Use emoji. It may sound silly or unprofessional, but it is the only way to convey a manner of speaking and engages the empathy of both users. You don’t have to be an emoji-master, but even limiting yourself to the two 1f642.png and 1f641.png  can make the entire conversation more effective.
  • Use other situational text spaces to your advantage. These apps often have a spot where you can show your location (Working From Home / in the Amsterdam office / business travelling) as well as space for a note

An example of using all the space given to me to inform others what the situation is before they even contact me.

The email

The internet is a flood with best practices for use of email, so I’m going to limit myself to those concepts that specifically have to do with urgency. First of all, I recommend that you and those you communicate with understand each other’s reaction time (Service Level Agreement in corporate lingo). The rule of thumb internationally is to reply to an email within a day (in practice this becomes the span of 36 hours). If of course processes force a longer turnaround time, such as a department with a SLA of 4 days, that’s fine if it’s obvious to everyone what the expectation is. You can communicate that expectation in different ways, like putting it in the email signature or having it on the department’s website.

Secondly, use the exclamation point (!) and ‘URGENT’ in the email sparingly. Overuse will mean that people pay LESS attention to this signaling. Rule of thumb: if you think the urgency validates extra signaling, try a phone call first.

Finally, turn off the email pop-up notification. I cannot stress this enough, it plays havoc with your attention span. You know where your emails are: in your inbox. They are not running away if you didn’t notice the second they came in. You check when you are ready to check, not when your computer tells you to. If something is so urgent that it needs to disturb your workflow, the sender should have called or messaged you. The rule of thumb is that anything in your email can wait a couple of hours at least.


The forum

Many companies have internal social network where all kinds of information can be placed for distribution, and even conversations can happen around such information. This is a great tool to minimize more email; many companywide news bulletins that are mass mailed and then discussed can simply be placed somewhere where people can go to in their own time. The level of urgency for this kind of information is that it expects attention maybe once a week. This also helps to drastically cut down on the cc’ing of everybody who may or may not need to join in. Someone can get an email saying that a conversation they may be interested in going on their and they can look and decide if it requires their attention at their leisure.

So that sums up the urgency characteristic of your communication tools: phone, instant; messaging, near instant; email, a day or two; forums, a week or more.

Those experienced with PEP® will have noticed that I left out one very big issue: the problem of importance. Not all urgent communication is important, and not all important information is urgent. IT is actually very rare that things are both urgent and important. It is the combination of level of importance and level of urgency which should influence your communication choices. The definition of both concepts is vital here, but that is a story for another day. 

Master PEP Coach, Fabio Luelmo

PEP® is a registered trademark, owned and licensed by IBT Europe BV. 

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