I remember my experience as a young engineer. I needed to find out the 100yr flood elevation for a project we were working on. My boss told me to contact the hydrologist for the necessary information that would be used to calculate how much to raise the site to stay out of the flood plain and the corresponding earthwork volumes (Of course this all needed to accomplished before a meeting at 4pm.). I had emailed the hydrologist in the past so I got on my computer and wrote the hydrologist an email asking for the information and i then sat back and waited for his reply. ..
10am passed – no response
11am passed – no response
12, 1, 2, 3 pm passed with no response.
At 3 pm my boss came up to me and asked if I had the calcs and I said “Umm, no. The hydrologist never responded to my email.” (This, my friends was a big mistake.) My boss quickly got on the phone and let the client know we would not have the data at the beginning of the meeting but we would make sure to have the numbers before they were finished. He then called the hydrologist and got the information immediately and handed it to me to work on. Apparently their email server was down so they did not get my email in the morning. A simple phone call would have solved everything. Lesson learned.
The Take Away:
Except for the (very) old school engineers, most everyone today is fully aware of the existence and use of email. Email has revolutionized how the business world communicates. However from what I tend to see, new engineers rely too heavily on email communication for things when the situation really warrants a phone call.
Let’s face it, engineers are not the most social creatures and we tend to prefer using email rather than picking up the phone. That is fine for most things but not for critical situations. The following are some rules for when one should make a phone call vs. write an email:
Normal/Low Urgency– Email:
This goes for normal everyday correspondence and coordination. The beauty behind it is that it allows the recipient the ability to respond when they have the time and information at hand. Phone calls catch people off guard and have the tendency to waist the time of the sender and recipient when the information is not at hand. Emails allow for you to be absolutely clear, so always state what when and how you need the information.
In addition email give you a searchable record to look back on when you need it. In design and construction this is an important feature to have at your disposal. However, when you need an answer quick, an email is not your best tool.
Critical - When something is somewhat urgent: Phone call:
It is early in the morning and you know you need an answer before lunch. At this point, it is okay to interrupt the person you need the information from. Give them a call and tell them what, when, and how you need the information.
SUPER CRITICAL - When something is completely absolutely and utterly urgent: Phone call, email, and a call to the person’s boss, (or anyone who will pick up the phone.)
You are backed into a corner. The deadline is here and the plans needed to get out yesterday. If you find yourself in this situation, it is your responsibility to get the information whether or not the other person is available. Push hard for the answer regardless of who picks up; your butt is on the line.
Remember, an email should always be written as if you were placing the message on letterhead. Be professional and never, ever, EVER bad mouth someone in an email. Emails are constantly forwarded to people in many different place and you don’t want your personal opinions about your boss or client coming up the next time you see them.