We are all way too connected. It’s a wonder any work ever gets done at all.
One particular aggravation I’ve been struggling with is how few people seem to have developed an understanding of how phone calls, instant messaging, and email differ. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and they are not interchangeable.
When considering how to get in touch with someone, particularly co-workers, take a few seconds to consider their circumstances and preferences. In particular, consider how they feel about phone calls. You’ll note I haven’t mentioned face-to-face interaction, which exists in a different universe altogether—the universe of relationships that matter, and might get you a job, or a better one.
Interruptions are the greatest source of stress in the workplace. Phone calls are the most jarring interruption of the three kinds of communication. I don’t have a work-issued cell phone but I find it difficult to be productive at the office when people interrupt me with phone calls.
IMing is not as bad as calling, but it’s close, since it’s a request for an immediate response. At least one can presume the person waiting for a response is not just staring into space waiting for an answer (as with a phone call), so not replying right away may be acceptable—at least I hope so.
IM lives in a weird space between email (which was originally treated as its name implies—electronic mail—and therefore was considered semi-formal, but more and more is being dragged down into the quasi-communication of text messaging) and phone calls. I’ve noticed that even if my IM status is “away from my desk” or “in a meeting” or even “do not disturb” people will still (!) IM me.
Do I have to log off IM altogether to get anything done? But if I log off, it looks like I’m not at work, and I like my boss to know that I am in fact in the office. . . (wait for it). . . working. IM is really only good for exchanging the most basic factual information—or for idle or snarky chatter, which I suspect is what it is used for the overwhelming majority of the time. (That is not a criticism—chatter, in appropriate amounts, helps people stay sane at work.)
So: If it’s very important, email me and request a meeting. Meetings don’t have to be a half-hour or more. Fifteen minutes is fine. I always prepare for meetings. How can I prepare for a phone call that comes out of the blue? I’ve gotten to the point where in order to be productive I often must divert surprise calls to voicemail. I return the calls the same day, and when I call, I have helpful things to say. If it’s kind of important, email me and I’ll reply. If it’s not important, just let it go. If you are on fire, stop, drop, and roll. Also, scream, “I am on fire!” so someone can use a phone intelligently and call 911.