Communication is an important thing in any team environment, and part of communication is realizing how your chose form of contact interrupts the other people on your team.
Generally we get interrupted multiple times a day via our various means of communication. Generally we are available via: Phone (both land line and cell), IM, Group Chat (IRC/MSN/Skype/etc or some web based chat system), and email. We will get incomming messages via all of these mediums in a day, and need to prioritize, respond (or ignore) and action each one of these requests. Each different way of getting in touch with me brings along an implicit level of importance as well as a speed of action type identifier.
Phone (and text messaging)
What do I think when you call me – or conversely I call you? To me it means that whatever you are calling me about is something that needs immediate action, generally it’s a show stopping problem, or a request for information that is blocking you from working on your assigned task at this time. Phones are the most immediate means of communication, and necessitate that I immediately switch to working on whatever the call is about. Now, if you abuse the phone I will stop picking up for you, and make you leave me a message – or tell you to put in a help desk ticket. You should only be calling me with critical things, that need attention right now.
Instant Messaging and Group Chat
This is slightly less interrupting, Instant Messaging is closer to a phone conversation – it tends to indicate that you need something now, but not right now. I can take my time to respond, but generally it should be within 0-10 minutes. The person I’m responding to has real need of the information, or there is an ongoing conversation happening.
First, I know a lot of people don’t like email. Personally I think it is a great async communication method. It is also the method that conveys the least amount of importance – and yes, using the damned “Important!” flag doesn’t make it more important, if it’s that important use one of the other methods. It’s a great tool for keeping a team informed on what is going on, asking for ideas and feedback, and other things that don’t need immediate attention. Email doesn’t interrupt workflow, and allows you to take time to get back to someone.
When I’m talking to someone I decide what level of interruption I need to keep working well and use that method, and at the same time I judge how important an issue is by the way you contact me. It’s a great way to easily prioritize things, now if only people would get on board with my system!