What are some polite ways to remind people of things?
June 27, 2008 8:00 AM   Subscribe

What are some polite ways to remind people of pending workplace tasks?

I work in a situation where people request software modifications etc, we make the changes and then they have to approve them before they get implemented in the real system. This is painful, as they sit on the approvals forever. They are very busy people, and frequently the change is not their top priority. They are also sometimes very important people in terms of workplace position etc. What is a good way to remind these people of open tasks that require their action without seeming like a nag? I don't want them to forget, (this does happen) but at the same time, the timeline is ultimately up to them.
posted by rhyax to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The no-timeline part seems hard. For a lot of people, if a task has no deadline, it will never happen.

A way around that is to get them to create a timeline. Email and say, really politely, "I know you're busy. I just wanted to know if you had a sense of when you'd be able to do task X, because my work depends on having an approximate sense of when this might happen". At this point, you're not telling them to do the work, you're just asking for information about when it might be done.

If they say, for instance, two weeks, then you can write 'em in two weeks + two days and ask again. "Hey, you mentioned a little over two weeks ago that this might be done in two weeks. Any word on this?" If they say no, ask for a date again, They may say they need another week. Fine - email them in a week. Etc. If you're asking them to keep up with their own timeline, you're no being a nag. (Well, less of one, anyhow...)
posted by ManInSuit at 8:10 AM on June 27, 2008

Best answer: What is your workflow?

I write things that need review all the time. So, when the thing is ready, I send of the request for review as follows:

"Hi XXX, attached is the document for review. BLAH BLAH BLAH. Please review this and send your feedback by DATE so that we can hit our publishing date of DATE2. Thanks"

It's now DATE and I have heard nothing from XXX. So I reply-all to the mail I sent?

"Hi XXX, any progress on this review? It's now DATE and I need this feedback. If you cannot review this document at this time, can you refer me to somebody that can? We are at risk of missing our publishing date of DATE2. Thanks"

The next mail is when you slip DATE2 and let people know about why you are rescheduling.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

IMHO, Bugzilla or another bug tracking system with nag e-mails setup for new items. Decent version control like Subversion, although you'd need some policies in place about committing code to trunk or branches depending on your situation. It all comes down to 'source code configuration management'. How you implement it depends on the size of company, and whether the code has to be bullet-proof stable. Personally I hate nag e-mails about new bugs, I prefer to check them when I have time, but it does serve as a reminder that there's something awaiting attention. Mail filters can deal with them for those that get annoyed.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:14 AM on June 27, 2008

I think hungrysquirrels got it.
I think automated system which sends automatic nagging e-mails is the way to go.
posted by WizKid at 8:20 AM on June 27, 2008

Sorry, I missed the no timeline part. My method still stands.

I'd like to add one more thought: by not reviewing your changes, these big wigs are wasting your time. In my job requesting reviews, I was just the lowly, no-status peon asking for help from other busy higher-status people. However, I despise having my time wasted. It's a waste of company money. I need to do tasks, see them to completion, and move on with my life so that I can do other things. Busy people understand this. If you let yourself be a doormat and let your requests go ignored, they will do exactly that; if you set a reasonable schedule and enforce it then you will get added to the calendar. This is how the world works. Do not allow your time to be wasted, and don't apologize for asking people to do their jobs.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:24 AM on June 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

ManInSuit nails it, I think... write a polite email to them every two weeks (or whatever frequency) to remind them. It can also help to include the previous notes on the bottom of the email, so if they scroll down they'll be gently reminded that this has been going on for awhile.

As for how to remind yourself to remind them again in two weeks, read this Lifehacker post I wrote, about how to defer tasks into the future.
posted by mark7570 at 8:24 AM on June 27, 2008

One more and I'll stop: automated mails are not the way to go. We have automated bug mails. I have an automatic filter that throws them in the trash. I never pipe real people directly to the trash.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:25 AM on June 27, 2008

Best answer: Yeah, I think you need to make a permanent change to the way these non-deadline things are handled.

In my job, I often get projects where the client says "Oh, it's no rush at all, just whenever you can fit it in." Our tactic is to always set a deadline. Out job-tracking (just a speadsheet) shows when a project is over-due, and we can check on it. If there is so much actual deadline work that we can't meet the artificially imposed deadlines, we can always change them, but we try to avoid that or else deadlines mean nothing. But ManInSuit is right: no deadline means the work won't get done at all.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:34 AM on June 27, 2008

One way that we've dealt with it is to talk to the approvers in question and establish that if we haven't heard back in x days, to assume that it's been approved. (Generally one last email goes out, but silence = consent.) This works really well when the approval is primarily a formality, and less well when the approver need to actually add input.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:41 AM on June 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

In addition to putting some deadlines into these tasks as a matter of course, you might want to consider, rather than emailing each individual asking for their updates, sending a status update to everyone concerned on a weekly basis. Start with the most overdue updates, together with the name(s) of the people responsible.

This would obviously depend on the number of updates, the number of people concerned and the dynamics of these people (if the list goes on for pages, nobody will bother reading it after the first week or two), but could start a bit of healthy competition to keep tardy updaters from being 'named and shamed' in front of their peers week-in, week-out.

Also, you'd just have one list to update and one reminder to send, rather than tailoring loads of individual updates.
posted by dogsbody at 8:46 AM on June 27, 2008

I really like restless_nomad's suggestion. As Grace Hopper said, it's easier to apologize than get permission.

Short of that, I think that you can take yourself out of the "seeking approval" process. If I understand your situation correctly, Person A requests the change, you make the change, and Person B must approve the change. You have no particular interest in pushing through the change. Person A does. As soon as you get the project to the "ready for approval" stage, contact Person A saying "The change is now ready for approval and will go live following that. Please get Person B to approve it and have them copy us on that approval."
posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on June 27, 2008

Put your request in their terms, not yours.
It sounds impolite if you say, "Hey Mr. Big Boss, you're wasting my time. I need you to do this for me."

Instead, rephrase it for them: "I want to be sure these changes are ready when you need them. Please let me know if there's anything else you'd like me to tweak before you approve change request A123."
posted by reeddavid at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2008

"Hi XXX, attached is the document for review. BLAH BLAH BLAH. Please review this and send your feedback by DATE so that we can hit our publishing date of DATE2. Thanks"

When people with no authority give me deadlines, or tell me I have to do something, they are usually ignored.

A more polite approach would be to say, "Do you think you would be able to send me your feedback by DATE? I really need to have it done by then so that we can hit our publishing date of DATE2." Then you can get their agreement or not. If they don't agree, you can address the problem way before DATE.
posted by grouse at 9:08 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

See also Raymond Chen's blog post, "You're not my manager, so I'm not going to ask how high when you tell me to jump."
posted by grouse at 9:10 AM on June 27, 2008

Response by poster: I think having them make up a goal date might be a great idea. It's a little hard because I don't have any goal myself, like a publish date etc to use. As far as I'm concerned the change can be implemented whenever they like. Also, if it's person A requesting, it's usually person A approving. It's healthcare related so, what we are trying to avoid is it looking like we're making changes that no one has requested, and we can't use any type of auto-approve scheme however wonderful that would be. :)
posted by rhyax at 10:10 AM on June 27, 2008

Best answer: I usually use the phrase "following up". Other tips:

- Be concise.
- Use an informative Subject line.
- Use the Return-Receipt-To header line, if available, so that you'll know when they've received it.


Subject: Approval of change XXX

Just wanted to follow up: can you please approve the change XXX which you previously requested? It's done and ready to be deployed.

If you approve, just reply and say, "I approve this change." [Or whatever the process is; shorter is better.]

If you no longer want this change to be deployed, just reply and say, "Please cancel the change."

Best regards,
rhyax (phone number)

> Earlier e-mail describing change XXX, in case they've forgotten.
posted by russilwvong at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2008

There are some great suggestions here (better than this one). But what I was going to suggest is -- if it takes them more than 6 minutes to think about the question, you probably need to go with the "when can you do this?" approach. Otherwise, just constantly nag them. In doing this, tone is everything. "I'm just following up to see if you've had a chance to...." "Sorry to bother you, but do you have just a second right now to take a look and approve..." If they're that busy and important, they probably get triple-nagged about doing anything: placing their sandwich order, RSVPing for the meeting, signing checks, endorsing random strangers' books, setting up an informational interview with their neighbor's niece. Yours is far more important.

The silence = consent method also works like a charm. Give them three emails, where the third says that "on [date 4 days out], this will go live, so please let us know before then if you have any comments."
posted by salvia at 9:06 PM on June 27, 2008

A little late to the party, but russilwvong's comment on email subject header is spot on. While my teams have deadlines for (most) things, everyone I work with is insanely busy and has email overload. I've found that using prefixes on my emails (Input Needed: subject; Approval Needed: subject; Status: subject; etc.) has been surprisingly effective in garnering responses.

Other great advice from this thread:
- Create a timeline: when you've agreed to make the change, make a schedule for it and communicate the timeline to everyone.
- Status reports: send status reports that have a quick outline of where things are, roadblocks, etc., to interested parties (don't forget to cc your manager/other peoples' managers). A scanable table format works best.
- Action items with names: This allows you to point out next steps publicly ("waiting for X's approval: 3 weeks" tends to get attention).
posted by sfkiddo at 9:24 PM on June 27, 2008

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