Better handling emergencies

We all know these situations when we receive an email asking Can you check the design of X, I need a reply by tonight. Or an instant message: My website went down, can you check? Another email: I canceled a plan at the hosting company, can you restore my website as fast as possible? A phone call: The TLS certificate didn’t get updated, and now we can’t access service Y. Yet another email: Our super important medical advice website is suddenly being censored in country Z, can you help?

Everyone knows those messages that have “URGENT” in capital letters in the email subject. It might be that some of them really are urgent. Others are the written signs of someone having a hard time properly planning their own work and passing their delays on to someone who comes later in the creation or production chain. And others again come from people who are overworked and try to delegate some of their tasks to a friendly soul who is likely to help.

How emergencies create more emergencies

In the past, my first reflex when I received an urgent request was to start rushing into solutions. This happened partly out of empathy, partly because I like to be challenged into solving problems, and I’m fairly good at that. This has proven to be unsustainable, and here is why.

Emergencies create unplanned work

The first issue is that emergencies create a lot of unplanned work. Which in turn means not getting other, scheduled, things done. This can create a backlog, end up in working late, or working on weekends.

Emergencies can create a permanent state of exception

Unplanned work can also create a lot of frustration, out of the feeling of not getting the things done that one planned to do. We might even get a feeling of being nonautonomous (in German I would say fremdbestimmt, which roughly translates to “being directed by others”).

On the long term, this can generate unsustainable situations: higher work loads, and burnout. When working in a team of several people, A might have to take over the work of B because B has not enough capacities. Then A gets overloaded in turn, and C and D have to take over A’s work. Suddenly the team is stuck in a permanent state of exception. This state of exception will produce more backlog. The team might start to deprioritize social issues over getting technical things done. They might not be able to recruit new people anymore because they have no capacity left to onboard newcomers.

One emergency can result in a variety of emergencies for many people

The second issue produced by urgent requests is that if I cannot solve the initial emergency by myself, I might try to involve colleagues, other people who are skilled in the area, or people who work in another relevant organization to help with this. Suddenly, the initial emergency has become my emergency as well as the emergency of a whole bunch of other people.

A sidenote about working with friends

This might be less of an issue in a classical work setup than in a situation in which a bunch of freelancers work together, or in setups in which work and friendships are intertwined. This is a problem, because the boundaries between friend and worker role, and the expectations that go along with these roles, can get easily confused. If a colleague asks me to help with task X, I might say no; if a friend asks, I might be less likely to say no.

What I learnt about handling emergencies

I came up with some guidelines that help me to better handle emergencies.

Plan for unplanned work

It doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help to distinguish if urgent requests are legitimate or if they come from people who have not done their homework on time.

What matters is to make one’s weekly todo list sustainable. After reading Making work visible by Domenica de Grandis, I understood the need to add free slots for unplanned work into one’s weekly schedule. Slots for unplanned work can take up to 25% of the total work time!

Take time to make plans

Now that there are some free slots to handle emergencies, one can take some time to think when an urgent request comes in. A German saying proposes to wait and have some tea (“abwarten und Tee trinken”). I think this is actually really good advice, and works for any non-obvious problem. Sit down and let the situation sink in. Have a tea, take a shower, go for a walk. It’s never that urgent. Really, never. If possible, one can talk about the issue with another person, rubberduck style. Then one can make a plan on how to address the emergency properly, it could be that the solution is easier than at first thought.

Affirming boundaries: Saying no

Is the emergency that I’m asked to solve really my problem? Or is someone trying to involve me because they know I’m likely to help? Take a deep breath and think about it. No? It’s not my job, not my role? I have no time for this right now? I don’t want to do it? Maybe I’m not even paid for it? A colleague is pushing my boundaries to get some task on their own todo list done? Then I might want to say no. I can’t help with this. or I can help you in two weeks. I don’t need to give a reason. No. is a sentence. And: Saying no doesn’t make me an arse.

Affirming boundaries: Clearly defining one’s role

Clearly defining one’s role is something that is often overlooked. In many discussions I have with friends it appears that this is a major cause of overwork and underpayment. Lots of people are skilled, intelligent, and curious, and easily get challenged into putting on their super hero dress. But they’re certainly not the only person that can help—even if an urgent request makes them think that at first.

To clearly define our role, we need to make clear which part of the job is our work, and which part needs to be done by other people. We should stop trying to accomodate people and their requests to the detriment of our own sanity. You’re a language interpreter and are being asked to mediate a bi-lingual conflict between the people you are interpreting for? It’s not your job. You’re the graphic designer for a poster, but the text you’ve been given is not good enough? Send back a recommendation to change the text; don’t do these changes yourself: it’s not your job. But you can and want to do this yourself and it would make your client’s life easier? Then ask them to get paid for the extra time, and make sure to renegotiate your deadline!

Affirming boundaries: Defining expectations

Along with our role, we need to define expectations: in which timeframe am I willing to do the job? Under which contract, which agreement, which conditions? For which payment?

People who work in a salary office job generally do have a work contract in which their role and the expectations that come with this role are clearly defined. Nevertheless, I hear from friends that their superiors regularly try to make them do tasks that are not part of their role definition. So, here too, role and expectations sometimes need to be renegotiated, and the boundaries of these roles need to be clearly affirmed.

Random conclusive thoughts

If you’ve read until here, you might have experienced similar things.

Or, on the contrary, maybe you’re already good at communicating your boundaries and people around you have learnt to respect them? Congratulations.

In any case, for improving one’s own approach to such requests, it can be useful to find out which inner dynamics are at play when we interact with other people. Additionally, it can be useful to understand the differences between Asker and Guesser culture:

when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who’s assuming you might decline. If you’re a Guesser, you’ll hear it as an expectation.

Askers should also be aware that there might be Guessers in their team. It can help to define clear guidelines about making requests (when do I expect an answer, under which budget/contract/responsibility does the request fall, what other task can be put aside to handle the urgent task?) Last, but not least, Making work visible has a lot of other proposals on how to visibilize and then deal with unplanned work.