Communication is not a natural skill for most individuals. It isn’t something taught in school or in college. I’ve had my fair share of working with people who weren’t the best communicators and I’ll admit it’s quite the challenge. It’s even harder when you’re not in the same place and cannot go stake out at their desk (something I did quite frequently in my agency days). So how do you encourage responsive communication without always being available? Or how do you deal with a lack of response? Better yet, how can you keep the communication streamlined and succinct without things going off track?
Staying Reasonably Responsive
I think the biggest thing I’ve struggled with since moving to a working from home environment is making sure that I respond to things in a timely way, while not being online all the time. The truth of the matter is most clients don’t want you to respond to them in the dead of night or super early. I find that the most simple thing is to set the hours that you’ll keep your email and Slack channel open. By setting a time that you’re going to close everything down, you’re forcing yourself to not look at that late night email or Slack message until you’re back up and working.
However, what if something comes in close to the time that you’re planning to shut down? The easy answer is to evaluate its priority. Is the world going to stop if you don’t respond to that Slack message or that email? Nine times out of 10 the answer is no. If it doesn’t require an immediate response (or you can’t answer it quickly), mark the email unread or use Slack’s nifty “Remind Me” tool to set reminders for the morning. That way you can make sure you respond to everything and stay responsive, without staying online for forever. Acknowledging that the priority is not “firecracker urgent” helps with knowing you can respond tomorrow.
When Someone Drops Off the Grid
What if you’re having an issue with someone else not responding? You’ve reached out to them and not gotten a response. Depending on how quickly you need the information, I would apply the 24-hour rule. In this case, give someone 24 hours (and sometimes even 48) before following up. I recommend using the opposite form of communication that you used, if available, to follow up with them. Therefore, if you used email the first time reaching out, follow up via Slack or a phone call the second. Make sure if you’re using a method like Slack, you’re directly tagging them in case they have their notifications snoozed.
Of course, the biggest issue is when you need an answer and a developer is not getting back to you. This is when it’s super important to know priority and how to set expectations with the client. If the priority of the answer is somewhere in the low/medium category, set the expectation with the client that you’ll try to get them an answer within the next 24 hours. My favorite response is, “I’ll give you an answer by EOD tomorrow.” With this, you’re ensuring yourself a full business day to try to get what you need. If the response is super urgent and needed ASAP, I recommend two things:
- Use the most direct form – or multiple forms – of communication to try to get in touch with the developer quickly.
- Come up with a solution to the problem that you, as the project manager, know will buy you time and will be achievable given the resources you have. Trust your gut and what you know about the project to come up with the best response.
Another way to help make sure you’re encouraging responsive communication is by making it really easy to digest. I have three cheat tricks when sending emails that help streamline action items:
- Section off a bulleted “to-do” list at the top of the email, bolding the name of the person who needs to respond or act. This helps draw the reader’s eye directly to the to-dos without worrying about reading the rest of the email.
- For those particularly challenging clients/developers – the ones you know get inundated daily with emails – I simply put “RESPONSE NEEDED” before the subject line of the email. It might seem a bit pushy, but I once had a client thank me for doing that because she knew she needed to prioritize reading those emails first.
- Eliminate questions and provide options to pick from. This helps to eliminate a lot of back and forth if the developer or client don’t really have the time.
Finally, when in doubt, hop on a 15-minute phone call. Technology, like Slack, email, and text often eliminate face to face (or voice to voice) communication. But sometimes, the back and forth associated with it isn’t efficient and takes longer than what a quick call can do. If you’re having doubts or you think the explanation of what you need might be too complicated, never resist seeing if you can carve out 10-15 minutes to jump on a call.
For additional help with clear communication, read our previous post: Clear Communication: Saying No.