Face-to-Face Communication in the Workplace

Elaine Varelas offers advice on when communication styles in the workplace clash

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: When I have a quick question at work, I prefer to just walk over and ask the person. Some colleagues seem visibly annoyed at this, even though their doors are open. Too many people ignore or “don’t see” emails, and I’m frustrated when I have to wait or follow up later. Why do people dislike face-to-face communication in the workplace? Should I stop?

A: You’ve identified your preference for a face-to-face and fast response. Now you need to identify others’ preferred method of communication because you aren’t in this alone. Identifying different people’s preferences in advance is a good idea. Most people don’t dislike all face-to-face communication—they dislike it at inopportune times. The solution to an email response time problem may not be walking over to interrupt people.


It’s important to be respectful of people’s work space, be it cube or office. Do you ask if you can interrupt? Even if people have their doors open, it isn’t always an invitation. Who do you drop in to see? What role do these people play? For example, walking into your accounting manager’s office while she’s working on complex financial spreadsheets that require a high level of attention could be very frustrating. Even if you’re walking into the office of a colleague who looks like they can be interrupted, you should always ask if you can have a moment of their time: “Hi Jim, can I interrupt you for a minute to ask a quick question about our project, or would it be better if I came by after lunch?” In all situations—cubes or offices—ask permission and keep the conversation quick, productive, and positive.

Be aware of the office hierarchy and professional protocol when choosing your modes of communication. How senior is the person compared to you? What other aspects of the business are they dealing with that would take precedence over your question? For example, unless you report to the CEO, you would most likely not walk into their office and interrupt. Evaluate the importance of what you need in comparison with what else your colleagues may have going on—this will help you decide if your question is worthy of an interruption or if multiple topics can be addressed in a quick meeting you request.


Consider how you appear in these interactions. Is your frustration driving you down the hall? You’re most likely showing that and then getting a reaction of annoyance. The frustration is what you need to eliminate—not the face-to-face time. If you continue to tell someone how annoyed you are because they haven’t responded to you as quickly as you’d like, they probably aren’t going to be very happy to see you arrive at their door.

Your frustration seems to come from the sense that your colleagues are ignoring your emails. If you don’t think you are getting timely responses, let people know when you need follow-up. Send something as high priority or request a response by a specific time. What other tools does your office have to ease communication and avoid unproductive interruptions? Does your team use Slack or another messaging platform that provides more immediate communication? Can you check a colleague’s calendar to see if she blocked off time to prep for a big meeting that afternoon? Keep in mind that your colleagues have other work and other requests to get to throughout the day, so be understanding and clear when asking for what you need; it will make things smoother for everyone.

You may need help from your manager to determine how to get colleagues to respond so you can do your job—and to gain an understanding of how often you can interrupt someone before becoming a pest. Work on developing reasonable deadlines and building relationships so people support your success on the job.


There are a lot of ways to get your work done, and walking over to someone is just as reasonable as calling or sending an email. Clarify the best way to communicate with people, state your deadlines and why, and be aware and respectful of the communication norms in your office to increase the productivity—and decrease the frustration—of your face-to-face communication.


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