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My colleagues often message me with various questions and requests related to my job, e.g. "How to do X?" or "My X isn't working, could you please have a look?". Most of these issues are not urgent and are usually solved via chat, emails or our ticket system.

Sometimes some colleagues (5% maybe) immediately try to schedule a call. Usually we exchange messages like these in the chat:

colleague: Hi, my X isn't working.

me: What's the error message? Have you checked this guide [some documentation about debugging issues with X]?

colleague: Can we have a 30 min call and I'll show you?

This annoys me a lot, because in 99% of cases solving these issues doesn't require having a call. A scheduled meeting doesn't allow me to work on the issue when it's convenient (answering questions is not my main responsibility) and interrupts me right in the middle of doing more urgent work. I find it much easier to just try to debug the issue alone and get back to the colleague when/if I need additional information.

Sometimes colleagues even manage to solve the issues themselves while waiting for me to do it.

Currently I either accept the meeting invite or reply with the following:

I don't think a call is required to debug this. Could you please send me the error message and tell what exactly you are trying to do? I'll have a look at it and get back to you.

I'm not sure if this sounds ok or if people think that I simply don't want to help them.

Is there a better way to decline unnecessary calls when issues can be solved without them?

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    So 1 and 2 are no longer the preferred methods according to your question here: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/148704/75821 – Solar Mike Nov 10 '20 at 8:31
  • @SolarMike ah, yes, that's a different issue, but it has improved a lot since the time I asked that question, so everyone is ok with using chat now. – lawful_neutral Nov 10 '20 at 15:11
  • When you say "call" are you talking about phone, or some sort of telconferencing / screen sharing? Because doing things over the phone when you need to see what they tried and the exact error message are pretty useless. Even screen sharing isn't necessarily great if you can't copy the error message text so you can paste it into a search. (Email also sucks as it's WAY too long between messages & response ... sometimes it takes a phone call + IM, or video chat w/ screen sharing so you can really "see" what's happening but without the delayed asynchronous communication. – Joe Nov 12 '20 at 17:14
  • @Joe I'm talking about Skype calls with screen sharing – lawful_neutral Nov 14 '20 at 20:49
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I don't think a call is required to debug this. Could you please send me the error message and tell what exactly you are trying to do? I'll have a look at it and get back to you.

I think you're on the right track. The only thing I'd recommend to do differently would be to change the phrasing of the first sentence: to eliminate any suggestion that there is a disagreement between what "I .. think" and what (it is implied that) "you think".

I'd phrase it:

Before we hop on a call, could you please send me the error message and tell what exactly you are trying to do? I'll have a look at it and get back to you.

If you phrase it like that, you're constructing a "we", making it clear that you're both on the same team, (no "I" and no "you"). You're also not challenging the requester's thought that a call was required. By not challenging, and by aligning both parties, the other party probably won't even notice that you've essentially denied their call.

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    Your answer is awesome! It's non-defensive and yet it gets him exactly what he needs from his colleague. Did you learn how to respond that way through experience? Or through reading a book? I know this question is a long shot. But if you know of a book that helps with having the right non-confrontational mindset when dealing with such requests, I would love to know what it is. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 10 '20 at 4:45
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    This is good. The important thing is to make it clear that it's in everybody's interests for you to see if you can find a solution before going into a lengthy call. And this is a very good way of doing that. – Stuart F Nov 10 '20 at 10:38
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    @StephanBranczyk - I can't recall if I read anything specific about this approach. My approach here is mostly based on lots of experience dealing with people at work, and almost 20 years of marriage :) – dan.m was user2321368 Nov 10 '20 at 15:54
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    If I was on the receiving side of that reply, I'd come back with "The error message alone does not give the full picture, I also need to explain to you what led to it, and what changes in system A was done recently, that impacted B. It will be much faster if we do it via call/screen share, could you please let me know if we can do this today, since it's rather urgent". What would you suggest doing in this case? – Andrew Savinykh Nov 11 '20 at 8:56
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    @AndrewSavinykh OPs goal is not to get rid of all calls; just unnecessary ones. At the end of the day, though, whether it's faster to use chat or to use a phone call depends on the communication style of the person you're talking to. E.g. I usually can explain a situation faster textually than verbally. – employee-X Nov 11 '20 at 16:23
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I'll take the contrary answer on this: they may be wanting to avoid long feedback cycles.

There's a very good reason to debug on the phone - it gives immediate feedback. Now, maybe you're right. They'll send the error message, you'll construct a single email reply, and they'll be able to take your email and solve their entire problem.

Or, it might work out like this:

  • Email #1: Here's what my problem is
  • Email #2: - - - Oh, you need to do X and Y.
  • Email #3: I did those already, and it didn't work
  • Email #4: - - - Did you remember to Z?
  • Email #5: How do I do that?
  • Email #6: - - - First go to your settings, click this, and then make sure this is checked.
  • Email #7: I tried doing that, but that checkbox doesn't appear in step 3.
  • Email #8: - - - Hang on. What version are you running?
  • ... etc, etc, etc

Not only this, but for every single email, both of you have to stop whatever you were working on, change mental gears, work on this specific problem for 5 minutes, stop, and then change mental gears back to whatever you were working on to begin with.

I've been in that spot, and this kills productivity more than anything else I've ever seen. What could be a quick 5 minute task if done in tandem becomes a tedious, afternoon-killing endeavor. It's not like you can get in-the-zone with programming when you have to stop coding every 10 minutes to do an email reply!

Don't treat the phone as the issue; I can tell you, it's not!

Your actual problem is two things: the expectation of availability and the expectation of throughput

Expectation of Availability. This one is kinda on you. When someone sends you a chat, and you reply immediately, you're sending a message: "I'm available right now to help solve your problem."

You need to either not answer the chat until you can devote time to the problem, or signal your actual availability in the reply, with something like:

  • "Sorry, in a meeting, can't really work on anything at the moment."
  • "Trying to get the Floobar issue resolved. Can I get back to you at 2?"
  • "I'm about the leave for lunch. Is it okay if we pick this up at 1?"

... etc.

Expectation of Throughput. Right now, the expectation is: LawfulNeutral is going to resolve your issue immediately when contacted. Well, no - that's bad for you. Because if someone has a problem that's lower in priority than what you're working on, you shouldn't stop what you're working on.

My guess is, that's the issue you're trying to resolve with the email approach. Because if they email you something, you've got the information and can prioritize it to address it when it's appropriate. You can't exactly do that if you're doing a 30 minute phone call.

But here's the thing: you can take a phone call, and then a few minutes in, say: "Okay, can you go ahead and create a support ticket/email? I'm working on XYZ right now and I can't get to this right now." In other words, get a sense of priority, and then go from there.

TL;DR - Don't blame the phone. It's not the problem here. It's the interruption of your workflow, and you can resolve that in other ways than refusing to communicate via phone calls.

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    To be fair, a major downside of the phone is that it doesn't parallelize. I'm fairly sure that many people can participate in four separate online chats in parallel, while doing the same with four phone calls is pretty much impossible. Using chat is thus much more efficient, because it eliminates the necessary downtime when you're waiting for your partner (or their computer) to do something. – TooTea Nov 11 '20 at 8:23
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    Also, the "immediate feedback" aspect perhaps isn't there with e-mails (although nowadays it's not really that hard to have a near-real-time e-mail conversation), but various online chat/instant messaging platforms are just as real-time as a phone call. – TooTea Nov 11 '20 at 8:26
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    "Not only this, but for every single email, both of you have to stop whatever you were working on, change mental gears,...." You're doing email wrong, Kevin. Don't down tools every single time you get an email. That's extremely inefficient. Indeed, that's at the core of this whole question: email is how you avoid doing that. – Asteroids With Wings Nov 11 '20 at 17:02
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    @AsteroidsWithWings - that's true, and I do that with email quite a bit. But then you've got a different problem: it takes days (if not weeks) to get the task finished. – Kevin Nov 11 '20 at 19:59
  • @TooTea - that's sorta true. But I think people overestimate how well our brains parallelize. You're not really thinking about 4 conversations at the same time - your brain is just context-shifting over and over again on which conversation you're actively thinking about. Some interesting reading about multitasking: hbr.org/2010/12/you-cant-multi-task-so-stop-tr – Kevin Nov 11 '20 at 20:04
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It's important to understand why people behave like this, as it can reflect a failure in training, communication, corporate culture, or software design. There are a couple of common reasons.

One is that people don't have the technical expertise to explain a problem in an email or fill out a bug report; all they can do is show it to you and have you comment when something goes wrong. They may not even be able to take screen shots. Training and education will help, especially if people are being asked to use complex software they maybe don't fully understand. A full solution may be outside your area of operations, but it's possible to design systems so this is less of a problem: e.g. generating automatic bug/crash reports, making it clearer to users what is happening and what components are named, or even just making it easier to cut and paste error messages (nothing worse than a UI where you can't do this).

Another more insidious reason for this behavior is that people think the only way they'll get something fixed is to capture somebody and keep them prisoner till it's sorted. Some managers definitely think "trap everyone in a room and thrash it out" is a good solution. You and I know it isn't but how to change their minds? If this is happening it reflects a major breakdown in trust within an organization. Making sure end users are listened to, implementing feedback channels, etc, can help. A bit of investment now will reduce problems later. You probably can't change this entirely, but you can get a reputation as someone who'll fix a problem, and if you have a good reputation you can start to ask for more of your "customers".

Neither of these are quick fixes, and we've had some good ideas for quick solutions already, but they're worth considering.

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    While the given reasons may sometimes apply (although I can't imagine from where you got the impression that people want to keep their coworkers prisoner), in my experience a lot of people simply prefer calls and meetings and/or feel that's more effective and there's less room for misunderstandings. – Bernhard Barker Nov 10 '20 at 15:40
  • I like this answer because it focuses on the systemic problem, rather than the immediate problem. I'd add that it's important to bring these problems and calls to your manager's attention because they need to know these people are taking up your time. Then your manager can decide to make some of your time available for support, tell you to ignore/redirect them, or raise the issue higher to make more support resources available. – Chris Bouchard Nov 10 '20 at 16:38
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    @BernhardBarker People with problems really love having someone to hold responsible for fixing said problems. I'm more surprised if you haven't experienced this before than if you have. – TylerH Nov 11 '20 at 19:12
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I have been in the same situation and what helped me was to schedule a few two-hour meetings with myself during the day to block most of the day for my main responsibilities and keep one or two slots for helping others.

So when someone come and ask for immediate help, I just answer:

Hello, I am not available right now. Are you available at x or y so we can take a look at your problem? In the mean time, can you provide me with all the information by mail?

Most of the time your colleague will have solved the problem just by gathering the information for you.

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Your proposed message:

I don't think a call is required to debug this. Could you please send me the error message and tell what exactly you are trying to do? I'll have a look at it and get back to you.

It is telling them: I don't care about your problem, send me the error message and in a undetermined amount of time the problem will either be resolved or go away....

They want to solve this now, it reads like you don't want to help them. That might not be your intent, but when I receive a message like this it tells me "go away"

Sure they think that you need to help them now, and you disagree. but the phrase "get back to you" doesn't help them at all.

Tell them you are busy, but give them a time for the call. Send a meeting invite, and then keep the appointment.

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    Your answer amounts to "suck it up and continue to waste your own time in these meetings". If they want to solve this now, the best thing they can do is invest in their own problem solving abilities. Sure, in an emergency let's work it out - but the most important skill to learn is how to be self-sufficient and be able to, ya know, do your own actual job. – GManNickG Nov 10 '20 at 20:05
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    While you are right about the message it sends, I don't want to schedule those calls at all. Usually I'm able to solve the issue in 5-30 min on the same day, and arranging a call doesn't help to solve it quicker or sooner. – lawful_neutral Nov 10 '20 at 23:46
  • "but the phrase "get back to you" doesn't help them at all." Wrong. It tells them that you are on it, and that an answer will be forthcoming, and that they can confidently go do something else productive in the meantime. – Asteroids With Wings Nov 11 '20 at 17:04
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Looking at the example chat conversation,

colleague: Hi, my X isn't working.

me: What's the error message? Have you checked this guide [some documentation about debugging issues with X]?

colleague: Can we have a 30 min call and I'll show you?

I think it's you who apparently has time right now. If you had no time right now, why would you answer the chat?

If you want to avoid calls and indicate that you want to focus on something else first, the conversation should start like

colleague: Hi, my X isn't working.

me: I'm busy until 10:30. Please send me the error message by email, so I might be able to prepare for it and we can solve it quickly then. Right out of my head: Have you checked this guide [some documentation about debugging issues with X]?

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    "If you had no time right now, why would you answer the chat" - I've seen plenty of people quickly reply to a message during a meeting (during which they certainly won't be available for a call), you may have a meeting coming up in a few minutes or you may simply be working on things too urgent to put on hold while you take a 30-minute call (even though you can spare a minute here or there to respond to messages). – Bernhard Barker Nov 10 '20 at 15:46
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    I'm in a similar situation to the OP. I can usually have time for a quick triage chat -- I may have a simple solution or checklist memorized if it's something that comes up often. But while I have technical knowledge and like to be helpful, it's not my explicit job to be tech support. I have a full work load already planned, and I'm honestly busy until I finish what I'm working on because I don't work in half-hour slots. I'll look when I make time to context-switch. – Chris Bouchard Nov 10 '20 at 16:32
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    "If you had no time right now, why would you answer the chat?" - Sometimes I'm replying while waiting for my turn in a meeting, sometimes I'm waiting for a script to run, sometimes I reply just to check if the issue is urgent. "Replying" == "has at least 30 min of time right now" is generally not true. – lawful_neutral Nov 10 '20 at 23:43
  • Answering/ accepting the chat is definitely part of the issue, and should be on OP's terms. Either: "I'm busy now. There's a guide at <url>. Email me the full details if that doesn't help." or "I'm busy now. If you email me the error message [full error details] I may have time to look later." – Thomas W Nov 11 '20 at 5:34
  • In addition, to what was written, ask them to their homework first: - What is the exact description of the problem? - What is the expected outcome? - What are the steps to reproduce? Basic QA questions that most of the time lead to them solving it already by themselves. – memoryleak Nov 28 '20 at 13:37
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You have a ticket system. Make it clear that bugs will only be looked at via the system. Tell them how you can only work on stuff if it's through a bug issue, for technical or accounting reasons. Refuse absolutely to discuss it in person. "Write a bug report, I'm really busy today." If you are obliged to let them call, get a dedicated telephone, and only use voice mail.

Make your bug reporting system easy to use, and document or add help to show how to add a screenshot or exception report. Use reasonable default values for every single pull-down. Make it clear to your users that a trivial bug or non-bug is quite OK, you won't laugh at them.

Then you can book your bugs in and out, and the users can even see when bugs are being handled, and when they are fixed.

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Additional to the response of dan.m was user2321368 I recommend to expresses in a suitable moment and a suitable way.

  • You are doing other things in the moment, you want to at least bring them to a point where they can safely be interrupted. So an immediate call is not a good idea. Not for you and not for the person that doesn't get your full attention right now.
  • The effort of establishing a remote session to simply see the message is higher than sending you a screenshot.
  • After seeing the message perhaps you have to do some research where having a phone call would be no help to you and waste their time.

This annoys me a lot

Be annoying too!
From my own experience it can help to just backfire.
For example they will have to live with waiting on the phone while you finish other work first and then again while you do research on their problem.
Remain silent while you read something.
Ask to repeat things if they flood you with information.
For really hard ones you even could explain you put away the phone because you have to type something.

If they still don't get it remember to refer to this case next time they call. "You know last time we were quiet on the phone 30 minutes, we do better without this". Or explain this generally leads to unnecessary quiet time on the phone, so better hang up and wait.

Or simply
I'm busy with something, I'll call you back in a moment - then perhaps you are the one to interrupt them.

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  • Like the final one. – Solar Mike Nov 10 '20 at 13:48
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    Being passive-aggressive is a good way to ruin relationships. – Bernhard Barker Nov 10 '20 at 19:51
  • @BernhardBarker Right, that's why the aggressiveness should be avoided ;-) You can't answer everything without any time, this is fact. What is aggressive about letting the other person chose if they want to hang on the phone during this time or not? – puck Nov 11 '20 at 6:15
  • @puck I won't digress to discuss the definition of passive-aggression, but my point is if you're intentionally being annoying to discourage the other person from asking your help in future (or at least change how they ask), that's not good. – Bernhard Barker Nov 11 '20 at 6:26
  • @BernhardBarker I see your point and agree that too much aggression is not helpful. But changing a behavior always requires intervention and it's hard to foresee if and how aggressive an individual person sees this. I know this situation, it doesn't feel good to let someone wait on the phone. But it's not helpful to entertain the person on the phone to avoid silence, then you don't concentrate on what you want to do. – puck Nov 11 '20 at 9:00

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