It is a generally held belief that the increase in communication choices and technologies has helped by reducing perceptions of global distance, facilitating a 24×7 working model, and enabling those with communication challenges to fully collaborate with their peers.
However, there is a dark side to this proliferation of communication options. Ask anyone who has struggled to get feedback from team members or key stakeholders and it becomes apparent that the greater the number of methods of being able to reach someone, the easier it is for that person to ignore you if they so choose.
On the surface, this would seem to be counterintuitive – after all, if you are reachable by e-mail, desk phone, cell phone, instant messaging and in person, surely it would be easier for you to provide feedback or harder to hide than if you had fewer options available?
Unfortunately, this is rarely the case as the combination of all of these communication methods increases the likelihood that someone will pick the wrong method of contacting their recipient, or that the individual’s preferred method of being contacted may not accurately reflect their availability.
With e-mail, two common sins are selective filtering whereby the individual chooses to respond to only those e-mails which are of importance to them and neglecting to correctly use out-of-office settings.
Desk phones & cell phones suffer from these same two challenges as well as unique issues of invalid call forwarding, voice mail boxes which are full and the perennial favorite of “forgetting” one’s cell phone at home or having it turned off.
Finally, few instant messaging applications are advanced enough to be able to accurately reflect the true availability of the user.
The weaknesses of each of these communication methods provide those who don’t wish to respond with a number of excuses to call upon when put on the spot as to why they had been tardy with their feedback.
In the past, the phone and face-to-face contact were the two common methods of reaching a co-worker. The amount of time lost in attempting to reach someone was vastly reduced – if one or two phone calls resulted in no action, the offending party would usually be tracked down in person.
These days, we are likely to start with an e-mail message, repeat the e-mail message a day or two later, call the person (usually ending up with their voicemail box) before we finally attempt to locate them in person.
This was a scenario I experienced more than once in past roles. In one of the more extreme cases, a co-worker who needed to attend a critical meeting was unreachable till the day of the meeting to confirm their attendance. Repeated e-mail and voice mail messages over the course of multiple days had gone unanswered. Finally, on the day of the meeting I ended up having to play the office equivalent of “Where’s Waldo” to locate them at which point the only excuse they offered me was that they had “been busy”.
People have always given higher priority to those requests which are important to them (WIIFM rarely is not in play!) but the ever increasing diversity of communication methods has made the lives of those who wish to remain unreachable easier instead of harder.