I’ll get back to you

Nailing the subtle art of messaging etiquette: you’ve been there, right? Sent an email, or pinged someone on Slack; fired off a question or a request, put the ball in another person’s court. And then you wait. And wait. 

After a few hours – or a couple of days, depending on the context – you check to see if you’ve inadvertently missed the answer. You refresh. Check your internet connection. And your outbox.

It’s a bit like that first date scenario: it went well, you come home happy, and for a couple of days you’re jubilant. Everything is in place. But then you start to fret. Have you missed a reply? Is it too soon to chase? You really could do with knowing, but will you just irritate your recipient and blow the whole gig if you hound them? The angst! Which is why we all need to buy into some messaging etiquette

Why messaging etiquette is more important post pandemic

Before remote working became the norm these situations were much easier to manage. There was always the chance of a “watercooler moment” where we could make a polite query as to the status of our message and go about our day with one less distraction on our minds. We could even casually ‘swing by’ someone’s desk and lightly drop it into conversation, without the fear of harassing a co-worker. 

But with working outside a traditional office environment now the norm rather than the exception, our actions need to be more intentional. We have to have a reason to talk to someone, and that everyday anecdotal rapport is harder to conjure. It leaves little space for a casual “Oh by the way, that message about the thing…” and so we end up with scenarios like the following:

  • Ping someone on Slack/MS Teams/Email with a query for information on a dependent story.
  • No response, just the sound of imaginary crickets in your head, and visions of tumbleweed in your mind.
  • Questions begin to form: Was the message received? Is it being dealt with? When will it be dealt with? Is it off my plate? Do I need to stay on it? 

Why you need a ‘holding’ message

Do a quick google of ‘email etiquette’ and you’ll find a plethora of articles on how to make sure you’re getting your work communications on point. Right up there at the top of most of them is this plea:

Respond quickly

As we get more accustomed to our remote work setups, this element of Slack or Teams messaging etiquette becomes even more important. When someone sends you a message and you don’t reply straight away, the above is what’s going on for them. It eventually forces them to follow up their original message, which really is a waste of everyone’s headspace. The cognitive load is larger than it needs to be too, as two people have the same thing on their minds when one would do. It also runs the risk of causing a build-up of resentment, as you start to feel ‘chased’ by the other party. 

The solution – send a holding message

It’s not rocket science. A brief reply, in a timely manner, indicating that the message was received will remove the cognitive load for the requester. There’s a benefit for you as well; Alex Cavoulacos, President of The Muse says that “the faster you respond, the shorter your answer is allowed to be” in her guide to the unwritten rules of email. A quick “got it!” can take the pressure off the recipient as much as it alleviates stress for the sender. 

Even if it’s not something you can get to straight away, a quick – and honest! – response is still of huge value to both parties. A “too much on my plate right now, will come back to you next week” is perfectly acceptable. This holding message example means that the requester knows the situation, and can make alternative arrangements if they need to. Just understanding whose court the ball is in can make a world of difference to both sides. 

Keeping the communication current

Once you’ve taken possession of the ball, so to speak, it’s also helpful to send follow-up messages updating the requester  on the status of the work. Occasional updates or check-ins as you work on the task can help keep everyone’s headspace clear, and manage expectations. Again, a little bit of messaging hygiene reduces everyone’s cognitive load and keeps expectations simmering rather than bubbling over.

Observing good messaging etiquette also has the wider benefit of improving working relationships. Go back to that watercooler analogy; aren’t those the moments when rapport grows over time? These ad-hoc exchanges create the foundation of trust that makes a team. They foster positive interactions and a long-term sense of confidence in the people that you work with. 

Great results come from great working relationships, at every level of an organisation. Wouldn’t it be cool if all that could come from nailing the simple art of a timely response..?