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Improving workplace requests

Posted on:February 13, 2024

I often think about systems and designing things in the workplace for better results. What scales well? How do different policies affect outcomes? What behaviors are encouraged or discouraged?

Lately, I’ve been considering requests we make to our colleagues. I believe in making work visible, so I have a simple idea: As a general rule, if you ask someone to do something, you must write it down and put it on a board.

In other words, you’re not allowed to just issue drive-by requests, in any form, ever. Not without putting it in writing and being intentional about it.

Why? Because even small tasks take time, and unnecessary context switching is harmful. Furthermore, with this approach we can avoid some issues. First, it stops people from constantly disrupting others and putting work on their plate. Second, it reveals when someone has too much work. Third, it prevents invisible requests. And lastly, it forces clarity in what’s being asked.

Some might argue that writing the request will take longer than making the request and someone doing it. I don’t think that’s true. If you’re super fast, it would probably take 30 seconds to write out a request. It’s hard to believe that any task you ask of someone else takes less time that that, especially given how much time it takes someone to re-focus after fielding an incoming request. Of course, tracking every single thing could hurt productivity, so let’s not take this to the absolute extreme. We can still practice common sense.

It’s not fun to be constantly on the receiving end of such requests. Especially the poorly thought out ones. Coworkers who like to help, and are competent, are often indundated with asks. Meanwhile lazy coworkers, executives, and ineffective managers can be the worst offenders of putting work on other peoples’ plate. By making it take a little more thought and effort to ask for help, we encourage self-sufficiency and mindfulness.

At the same time, I don’t think it means we’re discouraging delegation or asking for help; we’re just making it more thoughtful and visible. Everything is brought to light in this system: who’s asking for too much help, avoids helping others, etc. I believe this sort of visibility would keep everyone honest.

This idea is part of my growing list of principles, like documenting decisions thoroughly. Give it a try and see how it works in your workplace.