Handling work communication with people who don't answer email?
August 9, 2013 2:44 AM   Subscribe

How do introverts handle communication in environments where the receivers do not value email or consider it worth replying to? I find tracking people down to ask questions and make requests face-to-face or over the phone very disruptive to my work pattern (intense concentration for long periods of time) and very inefficient. I would much prefer to use email since I would consider this far less disruptive to both my workload and the recipient's workload. They can answer at their leisure, but I still expect an eventual answer if I ask a direct question (even if it's "I'm too busy to answer at the minute").

I have been accused of being unrealistic in my expectations (by someone who doesn't answer email). Am I being unrealistic?

What practical steps can I take to make my life easier?
posted by teselecta to Human Relations (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'd say plan time each day or a couple days a week to follow up on the items with people that don't respond to email. You aren't going to change them, especially if they aren't your subordinates.

Spend the first hour or last hour each day or an hour right before/after lunch walking around or making phone calls. That interrupts you the least and gives you the best chance of getting what you want. You can even put in your original email when you request the info: "I will call or stop by at this time." You could even send out meeting notices.

I know it is a pain to do this. I have had people that I need to work with that are terrible with email and the only way to get an answer is to pick up the phone and/or escalate. I hate doing both, find it much less efficient, etc. but I need to get my job done, so I adapt to the world that is around me so I can be effective in my work.
posted by chiefthe at 3:47 AM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

What practical steps can I take to make my life easier?

1. Send a follow up email - "did you get my last email about question X? What do you think"?

2. Go ahead and make the decision or whatever yourself and wait for them to make a comment - using the old adage that it's easier to ask forgiveness (or alter the item in question) than to ask for permission.

3. Ensure that your question-asking emails are succinct and to the point - too much background and information can distract from the necessary question.

4. You are an introvert who works in a particular way. Other people have their particular way of working. Don't have the expectation that they can accommodate your way any easier than you can accommodate theirs. Maybe emails are more disruptive to them than phone calls - you said "I would consider this far less disruptive to both my workload and the recipient's workload" - maybe that assumption, and it is an assumption, is not accurate.

5. Be direct and ask them what is the most effective communication method for them. Once you know that it may be easier for you both to get what you want.
posted by Kerasia at 3:48 AM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

If you're at work, and most of your coworkers work at a computer all day, and the company uses email, it's reasonable to expect responses to emails you send. If you don't get a reply within a reasonable time frame, send a follow-up. Note that for non-emergencies, a "reasonable time frame" is at least a few hours, if not days. Sometimes the phone is inevitable if you need an answer now.

And if your office uses any sort of instant messaging system, use that.

If people call me, I'll hear them out and, if it's not a straightforward question, I'll ask them to send me an email with the details, because emails help me keep track of everything and make sure my coworkers and I fully understand the request.

It is more rude and intrusive to always expect immediate responses to emails than to pick up the phone. One of the advantages of email is that you can receive messages without your current work being interrupted, and prioritize requests based on their urgency and complexity. It doesn't sound like you expect people to answer your emails within half an hour, but if you did, that would be unrealistic.

And "I'm too busy to answer right now" IS an answer, and if they're too busy, why expect them to send it? If they're concentrating on work, you shouldn't even expect them to be reading it.

If your workplace is not primarily desky-computery, you will have more trouble, of course.

I'm an introvert with a concentration-intense job and an obsessive email-filing habit, and I sympathize! Sometimes the more inconvenient forms of conversation are inevitable.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:48 AM on August 9, 2013

Best answer: Bundle your followup phone calls into a specific time of day, like when you get back from lunch or after some daily task that you do. Then if its part of a larger project or you agree verbally on a deadline, follow that up with a one-liner "as discussed" email because paper trail.
posted by headnsouth at 3:51 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Schedule time for a quick call with these people. Send them a diary invite, if they are hard to get hold of /liable to not be available when call them. And then you call them, get your question answered and all is good. No disruption to your work pattern as you've scheduled this time, either in your own diary or even with the person you need to talk to. I understand you don't like to talk to people, which is fine, but as you can't change people you've got to come up with a way of factoring these conversations into your schedule.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:54 AM on August 9, 2013

There are a couple of people in my organization who I have to work really hard to get a response from. One runs Support and the other is in charge of Analytics. There is no one at the place I work that *isn't* trying to get attention from one of these guys, and some of those people trying to get their attention either rank further up the food chain than me or genuinely contribute more to the success of the company than I do. I find it mildly annoying and have to mode shift to get around it (pick up the phone and call if it matters that much, drop the matter if it doesn't, enlist senior management for a diplomatic assist if dire.)

There's also the old 'throw a bunch of people on the cc line' but that's kind of a move that makes people look weak. It really does push people into responding, but it's possible that really they shouldn't be spending their time on it and they were right not to.

There are also some people who send me emails who clearly don't realize that their emails aren't the highest priority for me, for the exact same reason my emails might not be the highest priority for Analytics Guy or Support Guy.

So it might be a matter of perspective, and even if it isn't, I think the options are still the same: mode shift, drop it, escalate. (All this assuming that you've tried at least once to follow up on the original email with another email.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:54 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have one person like that in my work life. I send him an email and he calls me in return, almost every time, and makes me explain it all again. The whole point of the email was to explain the basic issue so he can have some answers ready when he calls me, but no. Some people just like to "think out loud" or talk things out, which I find maddening because it's harder for me to learn and remember things that are discussed verbally but not written down, and I hate taking notes. But other people have "preferred styles" of communication too, and it seems like non-emailers always get the upper hand as far as who adjusts to who's style.

What I do with the current guy is write out the email and send it anyway, even though I know it will not have the intended effect of having him be prepared when he calls me. It still helps me organize my thoughts, and if I print it out I can use it like an "agenda" of sorts and also take notes on it. After the call I'll send another email to him, summing up what we talked about so at least I have an email trail of sorts to refer back to later.

At least he is not as bad as the boss I used to have who, after I had gone home for the day, would sit at her desk, call my phone and leave a lengthy voicemail with detailed instructions about things she wanted me to do the next day. Her email was right fucking there, an arm's length away, yet she couldn't be bothered. So I would have to spend the first 15 minutes of my day listening to this long-ass rambling voicemail, taking notes and rewinding, taking notes and rewinding.... grrrrrrrr.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:56 AM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Unless you're one of the assholes that expects people to drop everything and respond to your emails immediately this is pretty simple to deal with .

Start cc'ing all correspondence to the relevant superior so that the escalation is the automatic consequence of your follow up emails. Most people hate to be outed as being difficult to work with.

I think it's reasonable to deal with email once or twice a day, but to reply to each email immediately usually means that you have nothing else to do.

If you expect immediate replies, then consider that people may deliberately not reply because you irk them.
posted by w.fugawe at 4:08 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Generally I agree with the suggestions above. But if it's always the same people, and fi there are always several dangling issues, you might also consider setting a brief (weekly/biweekly/monthly/whatever) recurring meeting with those people. In a previous job, I found that was the best way to manage my boss. If it wasn't a hugely urgent issue, it would get lost in his email. So eventually we set up a weekly half-hour check-in when we could run through the assorted non-urgent questions in person.

I am with you on the introvert thing, but ultimately the pain of an actual meeting that I knew would be occurring regularly to tie up loose ends was less than the pain of daily "why hasn't he answered yet?" aggravation.
posted by Stacey at 4:15 AM on August 9, 2013

Start cc'ing all correspondence to the relevant superior so that the escalation is the automatic consequence of your follow up emails. Most people hate to be outed as being difficult to work with.

In some positions, in some offices, maybe that's the thing to do, but I think it usually marks the person doing this as a junior-level player, and it really grates on the recipient, who will remember.

So it's bad for the relationships and makes the sender look bush league. If the sender really is new to the workforce, and young, it can sometimes be excusable, but it still calls attention to the fact that the sender has no weight of their own.

At least, that's what it looks like in the places I've worked. It might vary across individual company culture, though. Probably in some companies that's just 'what people do'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:33 AM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Does your office have IM? Everyone I work with is swamped with email. If I have to ask a complicated question, I send an email and then IM to say "I sent you an email about muskrats." I've also called or dropped by and said "I just sent you an email, do you have a minute now?"

That way I've conveyed my thoughts through writing, which I prefer, but I've used their preferred communication style to get their attention.
posted by bunderful at 4:33 AM on August 9, 2013

How do introverts handle communication in environments where the receivers do not value email or consider it worth replying to?

The answer is right in your question, isn't it? Some places are email places, some places are phone call places, and some places are fcae-to-face places. This isn't an email place. Change your behavior, or quit your job and go work somewhere else.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:19 AM on August 9, 2013

Suck it up and use the phone/face to face as others describe above. Then follow up the original email with an email summarizing the phone call and the decisions / answers from that phone call. I know suck it up is harsh way to put it, but by it I mean, work your way into it, practice and just realize it's something you have to do (introvvy here).

Then, you get the info, and you have an email trail to boot. Some may find it easier to stick to email after a while. Depending on the people, I'll have the "full conversation" in person, and email out a "suitably archivable" reply/summary.

Suitably archivable - basically with personalites and baloney removed.

To: Comma
From: Tilde
Re: Data error on service provider account #4382 and customer #0087289100

Comma, I've looked into the issue and see that there may be an issue with the account set up. I'd like you to request or approve I request a credit for that account, based on conversations with both the service provider and the credit card company that seem to indicate a fix on our end with data updates will resolve the situation of the wrong data being sent.

Additionally, we may need to update our first-line training to spot this problem.

Please let me know how you'd like to proceed.




"Hey, Comma, I've not heard back from you on my email about the 4382 account. Turns out the first line servicers can't see when the update for credit card information is going through, and we have to push the Reinitialize the account button to copy the credit card info across the system."

"Yeah, Tilde, I got your email. So you're going to do what then?"

"I've already updated the account, just wanted approval to credit the customer and get retraining going for the first line phone reps."

"No, Tilde, I don't think we need to retrain the line reps. But a credit is fine."

"But, Comma, the line reps need to know this a problem."

"Tilde - they can't see it's a problem. They can only see the current credit card information, not the past credit card information that went through before the update. They don't even know it's in the system, or that we need to retain it for PCI compliance. We'd have to change more than their training to tell them that, and get get rechecked for compliance. And then we have to credit back all the fees we're collecting for bad data. And, you know, they're college kids that last three or four months at most - I'm happy when they show up sober enough to answer calls, I doubt they could even understand more complex training if we offered it."

"... Okay, then, can I put in a bug report to get it fixed in an update?"

"Fine, whatever."


To: Comma
From: Tilde
Re: Data error on service provider account #4382 and customer #0087289100

Hey, Comma, glad I caught you. Just to sum up:

- I'm going to credit this customer the "rejected credit card fee".
- It's not feasible, it seems, to train first line reps to spot this problem as they can't see enough information to see it's missing - training and updates would put us out of PCI compliance. Maybe a reminder that problem calls should be routed up the chain of command?
- I'll put in a bug fix request to prevent this from happening in the future.

Let me know if you have any other questions or answers, or if I missed an essential part of our discussion.


posted by tilde at 5:22 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Totally agree with cc:ing their immediate supervisor if possible. Also flag the message as important and require a confirmation of receipt.

Keep it short and ask only one question at a time if you can.

You shouldn't feel too bad; I believe people who don't answer email in 2013 are totally unprofessional and should not be in a work environment.

I give myself 48 hours max to respond to all non-urgent correspondence, no matter what. Sometimes by phone, if it's a complicated issue. I generally expect people to get back to me within 3 working days unless they have a good reason. My workplace is not terribly fast-paced most of the time.

That said, I know how much it sucks to have to rely on these folks anyway. :(
posted by gohabsgo at 6:25 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It really depends on your office culture, but I wouldn't cc the supervisor, mark as important, and send a read receipt as a matter of course. That's a bit overkill in most cases and will make you look a little batshit (at least in my circles).

Like you, I'm very introverted, love email for its efficiency and status as a record what was communicated, and dislike making (or receiving phone calls). But sometimes it's necessary to make phone calls with certain people if you just don't get a timely response. I typically send a follow-up email making sure they saw my first missive (sometimes people don't, or at least claim they missed the email) before I escalate to the phone.

Not to digress too far, but I find the Getting Things Done methodology extremely useful especially when it comes to managing other people (not even subordinates, just folks who need to get back to you on something). My "Waiting-For" list is constantly updated and I make sure to include the date of the request, what I asked for, and any other relevant details. That way, when I check back with the co-worker or client in question, I can be very thorough.

Example: "Hey Susan, hope you're having a great week. Just wanted to check in and see if you received my email on 8/6 about the subject line for your 8/13 eblast. We'll need that before we can start testing, so please send it ASAP. Thanks!" Relevant details whether you are sending a second email or making a (dreaded) phone call.
posted by fantine at 7:12 AM on August 9, 2013

Reading through the thread, I think tilde has it right.

As a (mostly) introvert, part of my own professional development has been to understand how other people work and then work with what I find. It has been very hard for me to learn that a workplace uses both synchronous (phone, in-person) and asynchronous (email, voicemail) communications methods, and that you have to use both: your preference doesn't matter as much.

1. Remove excuses for the person to delay - When I worked (as a civilian) for the Air Force, I had to update and get consensus from the Commander that I worked for. Military commander types love to get their emails in the "BLUF" (bottom line up front) form, where the question you're asking goes first, followed by brief background.

2. Elevate from asynchronous to synchronous to leadership - Like tilde says, call or talk in person, but followup with email to record it. If someone still delays, the email/followup phone/followup in person evidence makes your case pretty strongly when you cc: the person's supervisor.
posted by jason6 at 7:29 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Totally agree with cc:ing their immediate supervisor if possible. Also flag the message as important and require a confirmation of receipt.

Please please please do not do this except in emergencies. Most places I've worked have had that one person who marked every single sent message as "important" and copied everyone they know, and without fail all the recipients roll their eyes and carry on with whatever they were doing before. If you make a habit of doing this, it will have the exact opposite effect. Especially if you aren't one hundred percent punctual with your replies to other people's emails.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:06 AM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Expanding on what you marked as best answers, you will start to get telephone calls back from people. People who will expect you to respond very soon, or they will think that you don't consider voicemail and returning phone calls important. Oh, the horror, the horror of this you are about to discover.

The best way to deal with this is to set that block of time each day you will return calls, and put it on your outgoing message. "Hello, this is Teselecta. I return calls each day between 1 pm and 2 pm eastern time. If you need a response before then, please email me at teselecta@teselectaworkplace.com" (If you only get messages from people in your own office, you can probably leave off the time zone and your full email)

The time of day to pick will depend on both how quickly people need a response and when you can catch people on the phone easily. You might need to pick two times a day, particularly if you are calling other time zones.

If you need to speak with people in person, set up some open door office hours at regular times, or walk around at regular times.

very disruptive to my work pattern

If you need to explain yourself to people, what you want to do is put this in terms of telephone calls interrupting your other work. If you work with very talky people you may need to explain that you wish you could just pick up the phone at any time but simply can't, the same as if you were in a meeting/with a patient/speaking with a client/something the other person can relate to.

There is one great advantage to speaking F2F to a person who doesn't do email. Such people are often more comfortable with talking than with reading and writing, may not be good at expressing themselves in writing, and will give you more information and more accurate information when talking. Talking can be a better way of avoiding horrible misunderstandings in this case.
posted by yohko at 8:40 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

At least, when you have already sent the email, when you make the follow up phone call you can practically read off your email to them over the phone and save some effort that way.
posted by yoHighness at 5:48 AM on August 10, 2013

You've marked as a best answer someone telling you to cc people's supervisors, so I have to tell you, for the sake of your career, that you should absolutely not do this. People will start to go out of their way not to work with you on anything, and the supervisors will get annoyed by the flood of emails that have nothing to do with them.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:46 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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