Questions to Ask Yourself Before Marking Your Request ‘Urgent’

A young business woman looks anxious as her coworkers surround her desk demanding things of her.
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Co-authored with Holly Gordon and Mike Webber

YYour work doesn’t exist in a vacuum: At some point over the course of your workweek, you’ll need something from someone, or someone will need something from you. Sometimes the request is easy and your colleagues are willing to help you. Other times, people are busy and resources limited.

Communicating the level of urgency of the thing you need — and getting what you need in return — is an art. On some level, we all know this. And yet, too often, many of us forget.

The two big don’ts

We’ve all encountered that colleague who needs everything right now. Maybe you’ve even dropped everything to help that person get something done, only to find out that the “emergency” was all in his mind. Or maybe you’ve run into his polar opposite, the co-worker who doesn’t tell you that she’s overwhelmed or unable to complete a task. That is, until her deadline passes, and her lack of communication means you miss your deadline, too.

To be successful in any career, you should do your best to avoid becoming a my-problem-is-your-problem co-worker. This requires more than knowing how to do your job. First, you must understand what you need.

The four workplace needs

Most needs fall into one of four categories (information, access, skills, or authorization), and the category of need determines the level of legwork you can do ahead of time. If you need someone to authorize your budget, for example, you can often collate all the relevant data in an easy-to-digest email or spreadsheet so the authorizing person can simply glance at the information and make a decision. If you need information, you can research whether that information is already housed somewhere else before you reach out to a colleague. Once you’ve done your due diligence, you can feel good about asking for what you need.

Pay attention to timing

Once you know what you need and who can assist you, you can think about when to approach that person for help. In a traditional office setting, you can swing by someone’s desk and, if she doesn’t look busy, ask for a minute of her time. In the remote workforce, you can’t see people, and you will often have dozens of colleagues in different departments across multiple time zones. In these circumstances, it’s vital to develop a sense of your target’s work rhythm. Is this person busy with payroll on a certain day? Does she reserve mornings for time-sensitive work? Is she out on the road making sales at the end of the month? You might have better results if you wait for a time that is more convenient for her.

The art of the ask

Now that you know when to approach your colleague, you can think about how to approach her. This step is especially important if the person is in high demand. You want to make your request as attractive and as easy to answer as possible. This starts with clearly and succinctly stating your need, followed by briefly detailing the steps you have taken to try to resolve the task on your own. Make sure to include a time estimate as well. Something like, “Hey Mary, can you confirm that sales are up 3% this year? Joe said I have to get that info from you. I’m presenting our results to our department next week,” is much more effective than an email that simply says, “Do you have a second? I want to pick your brain.” Communicating what you need and when you need it helps everyone prioritize the work that needs to get done.

In a perfect world, your colleagues stay in regular communication with you as you work together on projects. Unfortunately, sometimes your colleagues become unresponsive and you have to loop in others. It’s important to remain professional and give people the benefit of the doubt when doing so. Keep your tone understanding and make it clear that you’re looking for the best way to proceed, instead of throwing someone under the bus. Whether the person is on your team or a different team, your supervisor is often the best person to reach out to first. Your supervisor may be able to follow up with the person directly or point you in the right direction in terms of who you should follow up with next. When possible, follow your company’s appropriate chain of command and established guidelines for whom to contact and when.

Communicating urgency and need in a way that builds trust and doesn’t paint you as my-problem-is-your-problem type takes some thought. If you consistently work at it, you will soon be known as someone who is dependable and a pleasure to work with.

From Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams by Teresa Douglas, Holly Gordon, and Mike Webber. Published by Kaplan Publishing, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc., a subsidiary of ViacomCBS. Copyright © 2020 Teresa Douglas, Holly Gordon, and Mike Webber.

Mexican Yankee in Canada. Remote work speaker, manager. Book: Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams