How do you encourage your team members to pick up the phone when a high priority situation arises. They tend to always use email/instant message and assume the recipient has got the message, no follow up phonecall or heads up that you have an important message to deal with.

I sometimes think some of my team would send the fire brigade an email requesting help if the building was on fire.

We use skypeout for phone calls and all team members have direct mobile numbers stored in that account (so it is easy to get a hold of someone's number).

We actually prefer email/instant message for less urgent communications (as it doesn't interrupt our programmers during their normal work).

To date with have discussed this with team members ad naseum, and also issued guides & emails.

  • Hi Joe, I feel like I'm in groundhog day, we have guides, samples etc... on when to use the phone. I feel this is a real problem with younger members of the team who have never been in the work place pre instant messaging.
    – Deferm
    Dec 27, 2013 at 15:15
  • And I'm hoping the obvious stuff has been done? Like both parties actually having phones and making the phone directory easily found/searched? I've not had a phone in about half of my jobs...
    – Telastyn
    Dec 27, 2013 at 15:45
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    So do the people concerned agree that there is a problem? If they don't understand that there is an issue, or what constitutes a "high priority situation" then they're not likely to change.
    – Rob Moir
    Dec 28, 2013 at 20:27
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    Either you convince them that it is the way to do it or you make your boss demand they do it (with the implicit or explicit threat of being fired). Dec 30, 2013 at 12:18
  • I think that if you're going to use the phone for emergencies and expect immediate answers, then you can never use it for non-emergencies-- otherwise people will question whether the phone call from manager X is worth answering. This might be a generational thing, but to many folks, an IM coming up on their mobile and desktop indicating "WEBSITE DOWN, call abc!" is far MORE effective than a phone call (or worse a voicemail) from manager X which may or may not be an emergency.
    – Angelo
    Dec 31, 2013 at 2:26

4 Answers 4


I've noticed that it's easy to get people to nod their heads to clarifying or changing communication and hard to get them to do it in practice. My thought is that it's not generally an issue of understanding that:

  • High priority -> use phone
  • Not worth interrupting someone -> use email/IM

But that clarifying who owns the problem and what "urgent" or "high priority" is can actually be the harder step.

My next step here would be:

  • Make note of cases where the issue really should have been treated as a high priority with a phone call, and wasn't. Get a sense of the impact of doing it the wrong way, and discuss the issue of specific cases with the team at the next meeting. You shouldn't have to name names, although with a small team, this may become self-evident.

  • Having notes on specific occurrences may highlight a pattern where only one or two people on the team are causing the problem - which may be a matter for a 1 on 1, not a whole team meeting.

  • Make it clear that ownership of an issue ends with getting a positive response from the NEW owner saying that he or she claims responsibility. In other words - you will still be held accountable for fixing an issue if all you do is send an email and get no response.

  • Get some clear cut rules for what "urgent" is - for example, if the issue must be fixed in 4 hours, it's urgent. Or if it affects a customer.

  • Reinforce that no one really wants to have to check their email every hour - it messes up the flow for high-focus work. So don't do unto others what you wouldn't like yourself - mail a mail and expect a 1 hour turnaround.

I've noticed that people who aren't confident of their own judgement will lower the urgency of their own requests at times. Having clear cases for what is urgent and making it clear on who should take accountability will help eliminate that quandary of whether to interrupt others to get help.

  • 1
    Absolutely agree with " ownership of an issue ends with getting a positive response from the NEW owner " - That is the single biggest takeaway. All other points are valid, but this one is the most important to absorb. Dec 27, 2013 at 19:58
  • Hi I'm going to try this out before marking as answer, although we've probably been through all the steps on this email umpteen times.
    – Deferm
    Dec 30, 2013 at 10:16

Forgive me for saying this, but "What we have here is failure ... to communicate." (Cool Hand Luke).

You don't have a problem with the medium. You have a problem with your team understanding what communication is.

Your team doesn't seem to understand that without receiving an acknowledgment from the receiving party, you have not communicated. You have just made noise. It doesn't matter if it's email, chat, or phone. You must receive an acknowledgment from the other party before you are done.

This seems to be a common cultural issue with Millennials, but it is certainly not limited to them.

Explain it to them this way:

Notification is TCP, not UDP. Unless you get an ACK, you must retransmit.

[EDIT] - I believe @bethlakshmi put more meat on this concept. I recommend accepting her answer as the answer to this question.


It may be worth discussing & brainstorm with the team how to best handle high priority communications. They may have a completely different view on what works most efficiently. You may be used to picking up the phone but that doesn't mean others feel the same, nor does it make it an efficient communication means.

Personally, I think that the phone is a rather poor tool for this and I'm using it infrequently. Here is why:

I'm rarely in a situation where I can pick up the phone during the work day without it being very disruptive and/or rude. So it just gets to voice mail and then I have to get back to it later (sometimes with questionable quality and garbled numbers to call). A text message works a lot better: you can discreetly peek at it right away (and decide whether it warrants a larger interrupt) and you have a written record. We also use Skype very efficiently. We use text-chat to establish contact and level of urgency and then switch to phone/e-mail/video-call/in-person-visit/Skype-call as appropriate. Again this can be done while being in the middle of a meeting or another activity with minimum interruption and impact on ongoing activities.

You and your team need to decide what works best for you in your specific setup but it may be useful to reshape the question to "how do we handle high priority communication most efficiency" and keep an open mind while listening to your team.

  • this is for times when our application is down at a site (it is mission critical), and you need to urgently get a senior members attention (hence the fire brigade analogy), in general I actually prefer instant messaging. The reason this came up is I missed a google chat and a site was down 25 mins longer than it would have been had I been Google chatted + phoned. I do understand in most instances phone calls are not the best communication method. I've now amended question with this info.
    – Deferm
    Dec 27, 2013 at 16:52
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    @Deferm - Mission critical for whom? And what does mission critical actually mean here? The fact that someone is willing to hand off over an IM and no one has been fired or arrested makes me think that your idea of mission critical and my idea are 2 different things. Dec 27, 2013 at 19:29

What's the problem? Are you getting negative feedback for not responding to important emails in a timely fashion? What are your supervisor's expectations?

Does everyone assume you get email and IM on your phone as well?

It just seems like if emailing/IM didn't work, they would use the mode of communication that does.

Are you sure they see these issues as important as you do?

Sounds like a pet-peeve.

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