“Hey, Are you Busy Right Now?”: Communicating Respectfully in the Workplace

Modes of communication abound in the modern workplace—whether it’s email, phone, web conference, instant messaging, or good old-fashioned knocking on an office door, there’s no lack of options for getting in touch with a colleague. But not everyone agrees on a preferred way to reach out. For every person who screens their phone calls, or bristles at having colleagues traipse into their offices uninvited, there’s someone perfectly comfortable with interruptions and impromptu conversations. Ensuring both productive business operations and a conflict-free environment requires respectful communication and the understanding of treating others the way they want to be treated, not the way you prefer.

Most people know their own preference for a certain kind of communication, which can depend on a number of factors, such as personality or job function. Perhaps an extrovert loves walking over to talk in person to a colleague, while an introvert values the opportunity to think and craft an email response rather than being put on the spot. If someone’s job requires a detailed and analytical focus on a project or is highly deadline driven, a flashing instant message notification might be their worst nightmare. Everyone needs to identify others’ preferred methods of communication because this is a two-way street. Figuring this out in advance and being aware of your organization’s culture will help avoid being an annoyance or getting annoyed.

It’s important to be respectful of people’s work space, be it cube or office. If you like dropping in for impromptu conversations, make sure you ask permission to interrupt. Even if people have their doors open, it isn’t always an invitation. Being cognizant of who you’re dropping in to see and their role in the organization is also crucial for avoiding communication conflict. For example, walking into your CFO’s office while she’s working on complex financial spreadsheets that require a high level of attention could be very frustrating for her. Even if you’re walking into the office of a colleague who looks like they can be interrupted, you should always ask if you can have a moment of their time: “Hi Luis, can I interrupt you for a minute to ask a quick question about our project, or would it be better if I came by after lunch?” In all situations—open plan, cubes, or offices—ask permission and keep the conversation quick, productive, and positive.

Office hierarchy and professional protocol also come into play when choosing the best mode of communication for the situation. If the person is senior to you and responsible for important aspects of the business that would take precedence over your question, consider sending an email or checking their calendar for a free time slot to schedule a meeting. Evaluate the importance of what you need in comparison with what else your colleagues may have going on—this will help you decide if your question is worthy of an immediate interruption or if multiple topics can be addressed in a quick meeting, IM, text, or phone call at a later time.

When your preferred mode of communication is different than someone else’s and you haven’t arrived at a workable compromise, conflict and frustration are likely to arise—and need to be managed appropriately. If you like to email and it seems like your coworkers never respond in a timely manner, it’s incumbent on you to let them know when you need follow-up. Rather than silently seething or getting outright angry at anyone, modify your process in a way that might resonate with the other person. Send something as high priority or request a response by a specific time. Consider what other tools your office may have in place to ease communication and avoid unproductive interactions. Does your team use Slack or another messaging platform that provides more immediate communication? Can you check a colleague’s calendar to see if she blocked off time to prep for a big meeting that afternoon? Keep in mind that your colleagues have other work and other requests to get to throughout the day, so be clear when asking for what you need and be willing to compromise; it will make things smoother for everyone.

There are a lot of ways to communicate in the workplace, and walking over to someone is just as reasonable as calling or sending an email. Being able to clarify the best way to communicate with coworkers and being aware and respectful of the communication norms in your office will increase productivity—and decrease frustration.


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