Did you get that email I literally just sent you?

Minus the word literally, I’ve heard the sentence that is the title to this article spoken several times throughout my short career. In fact, it happens so often it’s become a running joke in my office to send a text message, chat message, email message, and then walk to another person and ask them if they’ve received any of them.

To send an email and then go talk to someone is almost never a good approach to communicating effectively. There are plenty of alternatives to ensure your message is received, read, and responded to in the expected time.

Let’s explore the following scenario:

You send an email to an employee. Within a short time period, say five minutes later, you approach the email recipient and ask, “Did you get that email I just sent you?”

Why Is It Wrong?

The mediums in which we communicate within our work teams have varying levels of destruction to our productivity. Some choose to only check their email inbox a few times a day. Whereas walking up to someone will force them to stop doing what they’re doing.

To communicate the same message in two mediums is a waste of time for the communicator, but it’s also sending mixed messages to the message receiver. The email tells them it’s not urgent, while the blatant, physical interruption tells them there’s nothing more urgent.

It’s confusing and inefficient.

Degrees Of Interruption

I like to use operate with three degrees of interruption, where the mediums for each represent the response time required. For example:

  • When you need response or action within about a day, send an email.
  • When you need response or action within about 30–60 minutes, use your messaging system (which could be Google Chat, Slack, or a text message — whatever your team uses).
  • When you need a response or action immediately, call or walk to the person with whom you need to communicate.

I took the basis for this approach from Remote, which is a great read on communication.

A Better Approach

Okay, so I feel like we still have this grey area. Interruptions are annoying, but you have to get someone’s attention and what if it has to be done in the next two hours? And what if the bulk of the information you need to communicate is already contained in an email?

Let’s look at some options.

All your people may not actually read emails all day, but they might peek at notifications here and there throughout the day. That means even if you are using email and expecting it to be read within a few hours, you can increase your chance of response by making your subject meaningful.

For example, a subject like:

DUE @ 2pm TODAY: Billboard Design

works perfectly. The recipient will see the notification and know they should stop what they are doing and read it immediately.

Still, I don’t find email effective when a new task pops up and has to be done today. This is probably a scenario where a text message or physical interruption is more appropriate.

Use subjects wisely, but be careful not to cry wolf.

Team Expectations

I gave you my personal opinion on expected response times based on medium. But your team should have its own agreed-upon response time philosophy. Some teams may want their people to check their email all day every day (I bet that team isn’t very productive).

When your team has set expectation, it makes it okay to interrupt someone when they haven’t complied to the agreement.

Explicit Expectations

A lot of times emails will have requirements of a task to be completed. So, why are you leaving out the due date and time? There are a lot of discussions that can be avoided if you simply add the items to be done and when they need to be done by.

And, for the record, these are not acceptable due dates:

  • when you have time
  • soon
  • by the end of the day
  • ASAP

For the first two (when I have time and soon), I’m probably not going to do them at all, at least not until I get reminded. Those time periods give me the impression it doesn’t really matter.

If something is due by the end of the day, well, that’s 11:59 PM on the date line, right? Our days don’t really end at 5 PM. Say “5 PM” or “midnight” or “before 8 AM tomorrow.”

And ASAP is supposed to mean is this is now your highest priority, but it doesn’t come off that way. It’s usually interpreted as please squeeze this in there. Nope. Add a date and time.

In any case, it doesn’t hurt to be specific. The recipient can always push back if they are going to struggle to meet your deadline. But, be straightforward. Then everyone wins because everyone knows what the goal is.

Scheduling Time

But what if the reason we’re talking in a post-email state is because we actually needed to discuss something in the email?

Another word for that is meeting. People have them all the time. They are usually pre-arranged by little blocks of time on digital calendars.

Do you really need to talk something out? Really? Are you sure? Okay, then schedule a meeting. Otherwise, put it in the email.

Your Team

All this being said, you need to do what works best for your team and your industry.

Learn how the individual members of your team work, and treat them as individuals. Do what’s best for your team, and not what’s most convenient for you.

Task Management System

Last, consider a task management system for tracking your team members’ tasks. Most systems have due dates and assignees and that can be a great way to know if something is getting done without asking.

This is only brushing the surface. We could open up a dozen more articles by talking about task management systems, but that’s not the point here. All I’ll say is just consider them if you aren’t using them already — they can really help.

I Am Not A Robot

To wrap this all up, I know I sound like a robot who wants to sit in a closet and not be bothered.

I should warn you I’m quite the opposite. I’m the office clown and I know how to have some fun. But I’m also typically under very tight and rigorous deadlines. So, I find my time to have fun, but when I’m on a working streak, I need to be working.

What I’m saying is that connecting with your coworkers is an important aspect of an office dynamic. But creating meaningless conversations because you are bored, or because you didn’t spell out requirements well enough, or because you don’t know how your teammates work is unproductive, unprofitable and a little rude.


This article was originally published for my (now retired) blog, The Polymath Lab, in April 2015.


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