You've probably heard the phrase "time is money" as a way to express that time is valuable, and should not be wasted. I think that analogy underestimates the value of time. Losing money is bad, but it is possible to recoup lost funds. When time is lost, it is lost forever. As a basic sign of respect, it is important to show others that you value their time, especially in the workplace, and even more so if that person is junior to you. I can't stress this enough: everyone's time is valuable.
In this post I'll focus mainly on requests for help that fall outside of the helper's job duties. For example, someone might ask me for technical help even though we have an IT department and IT support from vendors, because I'm "good with this stuff". While it's particularly important to respect someone's time when you ask for this kind of help, the advice also applies to requests for help that do fall under one's job duties, as a show of respect to your colleagues.
A common problem, especially in academia, is that people are often asked to provide free labor. Free labor is work that falls outside of your job description, or goes above and beyond the duties that your job description entails in quantity, and yet does not advance your career. In academia, unpaid work disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women and people of color. Because free labor does not translate to career advancement, and dips into time that would otherwise be used for career-advancing productivity, it contributes to the underrepresentation of marginalized people in positions of power (e.g., in STEM).
Asking for free labor is one way that someone might devalue another person's time. Devaluing time takes many forms and can happen in any workplace setting (also in social settings, but I've limited the scope here to the workplace). When you feel that someone does not value your time, resentment can set in, especially when that person is in a position of power over you. Social dynamics affect productivity when you work in a team. If a co-worker devalues your time, you may feel resentment toward and/or avoid interacting with them (esp. habitual time wasters), even when it costs you productivity. In some ways that's the healthy choice: maintaining mental well-being is more important than being productive (and harm to your mental health is counter-productive; see: mental health in the workplace).
How can these issues be avoided? To work as a team, we need to ask one another for help, and whether you ask for help in a way that respects the other person's time can determine how the request is received. It is also important to weigh your request carefully before you ask for help from women or people of color that falls outside their job description, given that these requests disproportionately fall on them.
Problem: Asking for help with no notice
Unless the person you're asking for help provides an on-call service dedicated to addressing problems of the sort you need help with, you should not expect them to drop what they're doing to help you with your work. (Emergencies, such as equipment failures that must be dealt with immediately, are an obvious exception).
To stay productive and organized, many people (myself included) budget our working hours in advance to accomplish tasks. By Monday at the latest I have a sense for what my schedule on Tuesday will look like, and what I need to accomplish on Tuesday to stay on top of my goals. I can try to budget some flexibility for the unexpected, but because I can't know what unexpected issues may come up, it is impossible to budget the right amount of time for them. There are many reasons why our plans might need to change. Some of those reasons are foreseeable or preventable, others are not.
When you ask a colleague to drop what they're doing to help you when it is convenient for you, you are asking them to compromise their work progress to further yours. It constitutes a preventable deviation from their planned workflow. Does this mean you can't ask a colleague for help? Of course it doesn't. You should, however, ask for help in a way that is mindful of your colleague's time. Requesting a meeting in advance means that your colleague can budget time in the future to help you, rather than needing to choose between helping you now and meeting their current goals. By requesting a meeting, you are asking for help in a way that is respectful of the other person's time (because you are not asking them to accommodate your schedule and compromise their own). You also allow them to prepare ahead of time as needed, which is to their benefit and yours (it makes the meeting more efficient).
Once a meeting is on the books, it's important for you to be on time to attend the meeting, and to give as much notice as possible if for any reason you need to reschedule. When you are late to a meeting that can't start without you, it signals to others involved that you do not value their time. (Of course, emergencies are the exception.) Aim to arrive early, and budget extra time if you can for factors that you can't control (like traffic).
If possible, you can ask for help from a knowledgeable person using Q&A communities (like StackExchange) or on social media (e.g., Twitter). These platforms allow knowledgeable users to respond to your question on their own time as they feel moved to help.
What if I can't request a meeting in advance?
If you must request help in the moment, give your colleague an out, or the opportunity to help at a later time. For example, ask "do you have some time to help me with [very brief description of the problem]?" Phrasing the question this way allows them to say no, or to find a time when they can help, whereas launching straight to the question ("How do I do x?") comes across as demanding. It assumes that the listener will drop what they're doing and help you right now.
Of course, emergencies do happen, and whoever you need to ask for help should be able to recognize the urgency of the situation. That being said, you need to be able to differentiate between personal work emergencies (e.g., "Oh shit, I had a week to get this done but I lost track of time and now it's due in 5 minutes, help!") and emergencies that affect the team (e.g., an equipment failure that must be reconciled now or everyone loses progress). Your colleague will be able to tell the difference, and will not be thrilled about "urgent" requests to help you with the former rather than the latter.
But what if it's a quick question?
If you don't know the answer to the question, or the solution to the problem, then you aren't in a position to gauge how long it will take your colleague to help.
Even if helping you would be quick, interruptions can be highly disruptive, especially for creative work (like writing or programming). Your colleague could lose their train of thought, forget what they were doing, lose their writing groove, their motivation, etc.
If you have to ask for help right then and there, ask in a way that is considerate, and don't argue with your colleague ("but it'll only take a second!") if they decline because they are busy.
Problem: Asking for help before troubleshooting yourself
There's a reason the site let me google that for you exists. If your colleague can use a search engine to answer your question, that means you could have done so as well, which would only have spent your own time rather than imposing on someone else's. You should always ask a computer for help first, because it won't resent you for asking (...that we know of). Relatedly, if there is a manual that could help you, you should read it before asking a colleague for help (per the tech adage "RTFM").
Oh, but I'm certain so-and-so knows how to fix it.
When you ask someone to give you their time before taking any time to figure it out yourself, you signal to them that their time is not as valuable as yours. Instead, try to solve the problem yourself first. If you can't solve it on your own, ask for help in a respectful way and explain what you have done to troubleshoot already. For example, "Do you have some time to help with [brief description of problem]? I tried [search query that you used] and [manual or other resource that you read] and none of the suggested solutions worked." If you tried asking for help in a Q&A community, you can offer to send them a link to the post. Communicating that you made a good faith effort before asking for your colleague's time will signal that you value their time.
The take-home message
You will encounter problems at work that you can't figure out on your own, and that will require help from a colleague. You can ask others for help, but you need to do it in a way that shows you respect their time. Communicate your request in advance, and be considerate.
This means that you ask in advance and schedule a meeting whenever possible, and that you give them an out when you ask. If you instead wait until they come to the office and ambush them with your problem, you signal to them that 1) you don't respect their own work plans, which you probably just upended, and 2) you consider your work, and therefore your time, to be more valuable than theirs.
When you make a meeting, stick to it, and be on time. Remember, they are making time to help you, and they can never get that time back. Relatedly, communicate in advance if you need to reschedule. Work on improving your time management skills if you have trouble sticking to a schedule.
Emergencies happen and are understandable exceptions. Whenever possible, take a moment before you ask for help to make sure that you have made a good faith effort to solve the problem yourself, and that you are considerate when you ask someone to give you their time. Doing so requires very little time and effort on your part, and will help your colleagues feel valued and respected.
When do you learn how to write a professional email?
I certainly never learned how to do this as part of my formal education, and yet it's a skill that essentially everyone needs to pick up at some point in their lives. I figured it out as I went along, incorporating writing styles from the emails I read that sounded nice, and picking up helpful rules of thumb from mentors over the years. I've become quite comfortable with my ability to write professional emails, even to strangers. But why did I have to figure it out (mostly) on my own? And why didn't I feel comfortable writing them until my mid 20s? Shouldn't we be taught important life skills like this before we need to use them (e.g., to ask a potential employer about a job posting)?
I have heard this issue raised in my own social circles and on social media. In social media, it tends to come up after someone openly mocks the author of an email they received (usually a professor mocking a student). That behavior is problematic for a whole slew of reasons that I won't touch in this post. Instead, my goal is to share the professional email template that I've converged on over the years, along with the more general guidelines I follow.
But first: you might be wondering why you should care about this. Writing an email might seem like a very simple, straightforward enterprise, but it's rather easy to make writing missteps that undermine your goal. The template and guidelines I outline below will help you write professional and clear emails.
Why should I do extra work to make my email sound professional?
There are certain social conventions you can follow that will help your email sound more professional, and with practice they will become second nature. The more professional you come across in writing, the more likely it is that the recipient will take you seriously, and will not ignore your email. That's particularly important if you're writing to a stranger and want to make a good first impression. Remember that email can't convey the tone of voice that might otherwise prevent what you're saying from coming across as curt, or as less than professional. Adding the extra pleasantries and politeness helps mitigate the limitations of written communication.
Why should I care about being clear?
You know exactly what you need from the recipient, but unless you make a point to state your needs clearly, there's no guarantee that the recipient will infer what you want from what you've written. Because clear emails are by definition less ambiguous, they are easy to respond to, and so are more likely to get a timely response (or any response at all). If an email is unclear, the recipient might be more likely to put it on the back burner until they have the time and emotional energy for a lengthy exchange that may be required to get everyone on the same page.
Let's say you're a student and you decide to email your instructor because you don't understand a homework assignment. If you simply say, "I don't understand the homework", that doesn't give the recipient much to go on. Instead, be as specific as you can. For example, "The wording of question 3 is ambiguous to me. Is it asking for x, or for y?" The latter question will be much easier for the recipient to address.
The Core Components of an Email
I wrote an example (read: fake) email, color-coded above, to illustrate what I consider to be the core components of an email. Note that I don't actually know of a Dr. Smith who studies statistical learning, and any reference to a real Dr. Smith is purely coincidental.
1. The Greeting
"Really? You think I don't know how to write a greeting?!" Well, maybe you do, but it could be slightly more complicated than you think. My professional experience comes from academia, so I'm sensitive to what will read as professional or not in that context. Not all of it will apply outside of academia, but it could still be good information to know.
The main issue is what salutation, if any, you should use. If the person you're emailing has a PhD or a MD degree, you should use "Dr." before their name (e.g., "Dear Dr. Smith"). Usually you can find this information on a professional contact page. If you can't find up-to-date information about the recipient's degree, and you aren't sure, it's generally fine to write their full name (e.g., "Dear Anne Smith"). If this is your first email exchange with the recipient, don't use nicknames or omit the last name.
Now I want to talk about the can of worms that are gendered salutations in our society: the Mr., Miss/Mrs./Ms. categorization. An obvious issue with gendered salutations is that you might misgender the person, especially if their first name is gender neutral, or atypical for their gender. If you've ever been misgendered, you know how offensive it can be. For Miss/Mrs./Ms. there is the awkward requirement that you know the martial status of the woman you're writing to, which is why I prefer to avoid it whenever possible. Another issue, which those outside of academia and medicine may not know about, is that using a gendered salutation to address a woman who has a PhD or MD can read as sexist. In most cases it's an innocent mistake, but there are people who intentionally use the wrong salutation out of refusal to recognize that a woman holds an advanced degree. Misogynist microaggressions like this are unfortunately common. When in doubt, my advice is to go with the recipient's full name and omit the salutation.
2. The Pleasantry
My go-to for this, as shown in the example email, is "I hope this email finds you well." It works whether you know the recipient already or are just introducing yourself. If your email is a response to another email (an existing discourse, as it were) then you can alternatively use "Thank you for ___" where you can fill the blank with "your email", "the draft of your paper", whatever makes sense given the context of the previous email.
When I was learning to write emails, I had trouble remembering to add pleasantries. If you find yourself having trouble, one strategy you can use is to write the email without pleasantries, then go back and add them once you're happy with the rest of the email. They typically bookend the email, so you'll only need to add to the beginning and the end.
3. The Introduction
This part is optional if you have already met the recipient. If you're contacting someone for the first time, or if you aren't confident that they remember you, you should include an introduction that provides your full name, your position in an organization as it relates to the context of the email, and the name of the organization. I used my current position and affiliation in the example email: "My name is Gwendolyn Rehrig, and I'm a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis." If you're emailing in a capacity that is unrelated to your day job (or your studies, if you're a full-time student), you should use whatever description is most appropriate for the context. For example, if I were recruiting judges for a science fair at a local high school, I would instead introduce myself as a volunteer helping to organize the high school science fair, and would give the name of the high school.
4. The Reason for the Email
Clearly state the reason you're contacting the recipient, and use "I'm writing to you because" to preface the reason. This makes your goals unambiguous. In the example email, I tell the recipient that I'm seeking expert advice on a topic that falls outside my area of expertise. Be as brief as possible about the reason for your email. I kept it to three sentences in my example email, and my intuition is that it shouldn't be much longer than that.
5. Action Item(s)
You've already given the recipient the reason you emailed them. Giving them an action item clarifies what you want them to do. When you request anything from the recipient, be sure to be polite but clear. If you're asking someone for their time (e.g., a face-to-face meeting, reading a draft of your paper, etc.) be sure to give them an out, and don't be pushy. I did this by writing "Would you be open to meeting with me ..." in the example email, which conveys that I know they might not be able to, or might not want to, and those are valid reasons to decline. You might not want to give them an out because you really need this person's help. But if you don't give them an out, if only to be polite, it may come across as though you don't respect the other person's time, and that's rude. If your request comes across as rude, the recipient might put your request on the back burner, or might outright decline when they otherwise would have helped.
If your email is time sensitive, be sure to specify the time frame. In my example I say that I will be out of town next month and would prefer to meet before then. This gives the recipient a sense for how long they have to think over the decision. If you don't hear back from them, it's fine to send a follow-up email a few days before the deadline you provided with your original request. People are busy, and it can be easy to lose track of emails or for them to get buried.
Thank them for their time in some manner. I like to use "Thank you for your consideration in this matter" or "Thank you in advance for any assistance you are able to provide". It's also fine to just write "Thank you" to finish your email.
This one is pretty subjective. Sign with the name that you want them to use to address you. When I first email someone, I usually use "Sincerely," and then sign with the most professional form of my name, and during subsequent correspondence I might sign off with "Best," and drop the salutation and/or my last name. You can also choose to add your credentials after your signature if you like, and a relevant link (to your professional website, LinkedIn, your organization's website, etc.).
Dr. Gwendolyn Rehrig
What you do here is up to you.
Someone on Twitter recently shared their tips for emailing busy people, which overlap to some extent with this blog post, and which I wholly endorse:
(In a follow-up, he added that you should always assume people are busy, and I strongly agree!)
Here are my other guidelines:
Shorter emails are easier for the recipient to read in full. If your email is too long, the recipient might only read and address part of the email, often without realizing they have missed something important. If you have multiple topics to discuss with the same person, I recommend that you break each into a separate email and send them at different times, leaving at least 24 hours between emails. You don't want to overwhelm or spam the recipient, and you also don't want your message to get lost.
Stop and Think
Never send an email to someone that you wouldn't want the recipient to distribute to other people (because they can and do, especially if you are in the wrong). This is a good rule of thumb for any written form of communication, including text messages, Facebook messenger, Twitter, etc. Always assume someone else is reading, or could read, what you write.
If you're upset or angry when writing an email, I recommend saving the email as a draft before sending it, then re-reading the email for tone when your emotions have evened out, then editing appropriately. More likely than not, you'll encounter situations in your professional life that are upsetting or infuriating, and your emotional response might very well be justified. There are a lot of jerks out there. But, responding emotionally is likely to blow back on you, especially if you are not in a position of power. Writing professional emails also entails that you respond professionally even when the other party is being unprofessional. This is to your benefit, and is colloquially called "covering your ass".
Give Good News First
When you're writing an email to provide feedback on something (for example, a draft of someone's paper), always say something positive up front. It's important to recognize that the sender has put time and effort into what they've sent you, and you should show respect for that time and effort, even if the result of their efforts is flawed.
When you critique someone's work, make sure your criticisms are both clear and constructive. If you're overly polite or hedge too much, the other party may not realize that you're critiquing their work. For example, if you say "This is nice, it just needs a few tweaks" as a polite way to say that it needs to be edited, the other party might think you're (essentially) happy with the current version. On the other hand, if your criticism isn't constructive, it will read as an insult. "This doesn't make any sense" may be a phrase that describes how you feel, but it doesn't give the recipient actionable feedback. If what they have sent you doesn't make sense, identify exactly what needs to change to make it clear, or suggest alternatives. For example, if someone's writing contains a slew of run-on sentences (as first drafts often do), you can suggest that they break the sentences into separate, complete sentences.
While this guide isn't comprehensive, it should help you get started. Happy emailing!