How you convey the urgency of your communications with a coworker has a lot to do with the medium on which you choose to communicate. At my office, we have a phone system, email, instant message, and lurking-behind-each-other-quietly-until-the-person-notices as options. Here are my simple (unwritten, unscientific, and unnecessary to follow) rules of contacting me. These are in order of increasing urgency. Feel free to share your own issues and dilemmas with this problem…


Email says to me “I have a question or problem, but it is not going to kill me to wait.” When I get an email, it appears as a little notification on the bottom right of my screen. I can quickly evaluate whether it is marked “High Priority”, read the subject line, make sure it is not from the boss, or a customer. I can let these queue a bit. I can deal with emails in between complex tasks.

Instant Message:

An IM says to me “I have a question or a problem, and it needs attention soon.” We have Skype for Business. It is actually a little less intrusive than email, in that no popups appear, but the Skype icon on the task bar flashes orange-y and this persists until I acknowledge it. That requires a bit more attention than email, so I am more likely to respond more quickly, but I don’t have to completely lose focus on a task for an IM.


A phone call says to me “There is a fire, and you need to put it out.” A phone call REQUIRES that I drop what I am doing, lose my train of thought, and hard-switch context to what the caller wants to discuss. In 2001, a group conducted a study in which they “conducted four experiments in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects.” This is very similar to what I do as a software engineer. The study concludes that:

“As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks.” (Source: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx)

That is what happens to me when I get a phone call. And it takes me a significant amount of time to get back to where I was.

The shoulder tap:

Coming over to a co-worker’s desk to interrupt says to me “There is a bomb in the building that you must defuse.” It’s a lot like a phone call, but I can’t even make faces at the co-worker without them seeing it.

What about your thoughts on this issue? Let me know how you feel. Don’t worry. It’s not urgent…