What is an office hermit? These are the colleagues who, hidden within the confines of their offices or workstations, click away on their computer keyboards, mumble their way through conference calls behind closed doors, and slip in and out of their offices and workstations as quickly and silently as they can. It is almost as if there is a secret society comprised of individuals who pride themselves on how few colleagues they interact with on a daily basis.
If you are an office hermit, you are at risk of being just a body in a chair or a voice on the phone. When working to raise your visibility in your organization and industry, you need to interact with colleagues.
You may not realize that you are at risk of becoming an office hermit, even if you feel as though you are interacting with a lot of colleagues. When you take a moment to step back and look at with whom you are interacting and how frequently you are interacting, you may find that:
– you are interacting with the same three or four colleagues.
– you are interacting with individuals who are not key decision makers and influencers.
– you are not interacting as much as you think you are.
What is the responsiveness hurdle #3?
I do not feel I have time to get back to everyone.
What can you do?
– Schedule some daily time on your calendar dedicated to returning phone calls and email.
– Ask your colleagues by when they needs an answer. Often times, it is not as quickly as you might think.
– Read the Harvard Business Review article, Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy (October 2007)
What is the responsiveness hurdle #2?
I do not provide colleagues an update when my efforts to respond to them is taking longer than expected.
What can you do?
– Call your colleagues as soon as possible to discuss a new deadline.
– Leave your colleagues a message if you are unable to connect with them live, to ensure she has this information as early as possible.
– Consider alternatives to meeting the deadline that may include the assistance of other colleagues.
What is the responsiveness hurdle #1?
I do not respond quickly to colleagues who outreach to me for help.
What can you do?
– Create a “first in, first out” log to ensure you get back to your colleagues faster and in the order of their outreaches to you.
– Respond quickly to your colleagues to let them know that you are working on his request and your anticipated day of completion. By setting expectations, you eliminate unnecessary follow-up emails and phone calls.
– Investigate if your e-mail management system allows you to color code emails from certain colleagues. This way, you can prioritize your responses.
Work to respond to voicemails and emails within twenty-four hours.
– Update your voice mail and email auto responder to reflect when you will be delayed in your response time. Upon realizing you are not available, some colleagues may seek their answer elsewhere, reducing your workload.
– Consider sending an email in response to a voicemail. While human interaction is always preferable, a quick acknowledgement is better than no acknowledgement.
Not all who are unresponsive can blame the overwhelming amount of incoming emails and phone calls as the cause of their behavior. Many of us tend to assume that other people’s low responsiveness is due to workload when, in reality, they may not possess a natural predilection to getting back to others in a timely fashion, if at all. Consider the various places you could find yourself when you attempt to balance a desire to be responsive with your actual responsiveness.
Low desire to be responsive + low responsiveness. You are not very responsive, as you have little to no interest in responding to others. You are at risk of being seen as an obstructionist to progress, and your colleagues are going to simply exclude you and work around you. Your relevance in your organization is in jeopardy.
Low desire to be responsive + high responsiveness. You are likely in a role where external factors (versus your own desire) require you to be responsive. These types of roles may include, for example, a call center representative or a customer service specialist. You may find yourself in performance jeopardy as this role does not suit you well.
High desire to be responsive + low responsiveness. You represent the vast majority of busy business professionals. You really want to get back to your colleagues in a timely fashion, yet your workday is over before you have a chance to do so. The frustration your colleagues are experiencing is exceeded only by your own frustration.
High desire to be responsive + high responsiveness. You are making a difference in your organization through your support of your colleagues. You successfully satisfy your innate desire to be responsive by getting back to others in a timely basis, thus reducing stress and enabling progress.
At some point, you will either have the answer your colleagues need or realize that you do not. If you have the answer they need – great! However, once you know that you are unable to help, let your colleagues know as soon as possible so they can go elsewhere. Avoid becoming the “black hole” or “bottomless pit” that exists in so many organizations by responding no matter what. In order to help your colleagues make progress, consider the following messages:
– “I’ve tried to figure out what is wrong with the spreadsheet you asked me to look at and I cannot find the problem. Rather than keep you waiting any longer, I think you should call Frederick in Accounts Payable who knows more about these types of spreadsheets than I do. His extension is 455.”
– “I gave this my best shot and I still can’t figure it out. Have you thought about going back to the client for more information?”
– “I was able to make some progress. I forwarded this to Debbie Smith in marketing asking her to see if she can help as well.”
Once you have set expectations and quickly acknowledged your colleagues outreach, you need to keep your colleagues updated on the status of their outreach.
You may not have started working on it yet, or you just started working on it and you aren’t ready to respond, or you have been working on it a lot and you don’t have a response yet. By keeping your colleagues updated, you will benefit in the following ways:
– You continue to manage expectations that reflect your calendar and workload.
– You continue to reduce some of the frustration that your colleagues may experience as time passes without a next step or conclusion.
– You provide your colleagues the information and opportunity to change how they are working to satisfy their outreach. For example, your colleagues may decide to speak to someone else to get a resolution.
There is a big difference between acknowledging an outreach and providing an answer to the outreach. You may not have the answer or you may not have the time to provide the answer at that moment. Regardless of the situation and in order to help your colleagues make progress, you do need to acknowledge them. By acknowledging receipt of an email or a phone message, you will benefit in the following ways:
– You ensure that your colleagues know that you received the message, reducing the likelihood that your colleagues will send another email looking for an update or call again to confirm that you received the message in the first place.
– You are able to set new expectations that reflect your calendar and workload.
– You reduce some of the frustration that your colleagues may experience as time passes without a response.
What does “quickly” mean? Regardless of whether it was Plato or Shakespeare who popularized the often quoted “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” quickness is also in the eye of the beholder. Attempting to meet all of your colleagues’ expectations for quickness is as unlikely as all of your colleagues thinking the outfit you have on today looks “fantastic!” Your goal is to set an expectation that you can follow consistently so your colleagues know what to expect from you.
If you can’t commit to the “24-hour rule,” (don’t commit to something you cannot fulfill) the next best strategy to set expectations around response time is the “24/48/72” model. Regardless of the number of daily outreaches you receive, you should respond to the majority of colleagues within 24 hours, and you should have contacted the vast majority of them within 72 hours. This does not mean all of the topics have been resolved; this means you have contacted them in order to keep things moving.
Although you cannot control the number of inbound outreaches to you, you can set expectations regarding how your colleagues will hear back from you. Expectations are the boundaries you create which reflect your unique style, calendar and workload. Here are some ways to set expectations/boundaries with your colleagues:
– Establish, communicate, and honor a 24-hour response rule where you say in your emails and voicemails that you will respond to your colleagues within 24 hours of your receipt of their outreach. It is generally understood that this means Monday if the message is left from Friday to Sunday.
– Schedule time on your calendar specifically to respond to voicemails and emails.
– Utilize the “out-of-office” functionality embedded in your email system when you know you will be unable to access email or voicemail (i.e., you are attending a three-day offsite meeting or you are on vacation), and ensure you include when you will be returning to the office, when you will be able to start responding to outreaches you have received, and the name, phone number and email address of an individual your colleagues can reach during your absence
– Update your voicemail to let your colleagues know that you are out of the office, when you will be returning, and who they can contact in your absence if they have an urgent need.
You may feel that you should not respond to colleagues until you have the answer to their questions or requests. You may assume that others know you are working on their problem and you don’t feel a need to keep them updated. You may rationalize that you are so busy, you don’t have time to get back to anyone other than your boss.
While these are reasonable perspectives, days could go by before you have an answer (especially if you are dependent on others for information) and colleagues who originally reached out to you may feel forgotten. Without a response or an update, your colleagues are unsure if you received their email or if you are working on their request at all, allowing frustration to grow and progress to stall.
Harry Ebbighausen, a former President at Iron Mountain Incorporated has mastered the ability to be highly responsive. Despite his voluminous workload and hectic travel schedule supporting a $3 billion enterprise, Harry possesses a reputation throughout Iron Mountain and the records management industry as an person who “gets back to everyone,” whether the individual reaching out to him is a fellow executive or a truck driver at a distant facility.
Harry’s reasons for being responsive are clear. “It’s a matter of respect,” says Harry. “If a colleague or an employee is taking the time to reach out to you, there must be a good reason. You demonstrate respect to others by responding to their outreach as quickly as you can.” At the same time, “if you don’t respond to others quickly, they will either not reach out to you again or fill-in their own answer to their problem. Sometimes, it may not be a good answer.”