“What do I reply?”
“What does she mean by that?”
“Why hasn’t he answered my email yet?”
Anyone who has ever messaged anyone ever has had these questions.
Digital communications through text and apps are great – but you can lose meaning when it’s simply words on a screen.
And when we need to say something to someone – do we text? Call? Email? Meet for coffee?
Some things are best said over text, others are best said in person. Working out which is which, can be complex.
This is why we need a Hierarchy of Communication in both our business and personal lives – to work out what the best medium is to convey the message that we want.
The Business Hierarchy of Communication
A business hierarchy of communication is used inside a business.1i.e., internal communications.
The best way to work out what medium or channel to use internally in business, is to look at the urgency or importance of the communication.
Because as much as possible, we want to let our fellow team members do deep work and focus. We also want to make sure that we say the right things at the right time, and often the medium conveys a certain message in and of itself.
Let’s look at each medium used inside a business from least important to most important.
Importance Level 1: Email
The best practice for internal communications is to never send email internally.
So when would it be appropriate to send an internal email and how urgent should it be?
At companies where I have implemented a business hierarchy of communication, a twenty-four hour turnaround time is the standard expectation for internal email. This is because there would be very few emails sent internally.
A good example of this would be a weekly team newsletter, where no reply would be required at all.
Importance Level 2: Scheduled meetings
Scheduled Meetings are where people physically gather in the same room or online and discuss or decide on a set of issues.
It is a good idea to set a policy that meetings should only take place when necessary, as they often break the flow of people’s work days.2Work doesn’t get done if you’re in a meeting.
I would recommend only using meetings for:
- Regular team alignment (weekly, monthly, quarterly meetings).
- Important, emotional announcements like the sale of a business unit or other major change in the company.
People are expected to show up on time for meetings. They should also start on time, end on time and be as brief as possible.
Meetings are (and should be) scheduled well in advance, which is why they are amongst the least urgent forms of business communication.
Importance Level 3: Wiki, files, project management tools
Any communication made in your team wiki, file storage service or project management tool3e.g., Tettra, Confluence, Asana, Jira, Dropbox, Google Drive etc. This includes any CRMs as well. should be considered somewhat important, unless someone is explicitly mentioned by name.4This is commonly done using @name on most platforms.
These could be things like an update on a task, something marked for review, or information to be shared amongst the team.
Anything communicated across any of these tools is usually not urgent, and most of them will need no reply.
If they do require a reply, you can expect someone to get back to you within the same business day (twelve hours).
An example could be a wiki update about some new legislative changes that will affect an uncommonly used process. No reply would be needed in this case.
Another example would be updating and assigning a task in your project management system. In this case someone is being explicitly @mentioned, and a reply would be expected within the same business day.
Note that an important update should still be made in these tools, and then bumped up to a more urgent level via a direct messaging tool.
Importance Level 4: Direct messages (DMs) and group messages
Direct Messages and Group Messages are messages sent over a team communications platform like Slack, Microsoft Teams or Facebook Workplace.
When you have a platform like this in place, direct or group messages should be the default mode of business communication.
The urgency level of these communications is no more than four hours during business hours.
This may seem like a long time if you are all sitting in the same physical office, but with offices in different timezones or distributed remote teams, you cannot assume that everyone is at their computer at that exact moment.
Examples pretty much cover all communications that happen in a modern business and can range from “Where has this piece of work progressed to?” to “Did you hear about XYZ update coming next week?”.
Importance Level 5: Phone call
The phone call is where we start go from reply-later to answer-now.
If someone is calling you internally within your company, it is expected that you pick up right away.
A common example of this is if one team member is sitting with a client and needs something from someone else immediately.
Importance Level 6: In-person
In-person communication is where you walk up to another person’s desk unannounced and speak with them right away.
There are only two real reasons you should be doing this:
- The building is on fire.
- Pizza has arrived in the kitchen and it’s time to eat.
Unless a matter is extremely urgent and time sensitive, stick with another medium of communication.
For example if you need to ask someone a question, DM them on Slack.
External Business Communications and the Hierarchy of Communication
The above six levels are about internal communications.
External communications are still mostly done over phone and email nowadays, and you can expect:
- A phone call to be about discussing something now.
- An email to have a three-to-four day turnaround time.5Some companies are just really, really slow on email.
The Personal Hierarchy of Communication
Choosing a medium for your personal communications is different than it is for business and can be a bit more complex.
The best method I have come across for picking whether to text or call or meet is a combination of content and intensity.
A lot of the personal hierarchy of communication is about being patient and holding your tongue and keeping your emotions in check. Some things really are better said in-person or on the phone than over text.6i.e., don’t blow up someone’s phone with twenty-plus text messages.
Here they are – from the least intense, to the most intense.
Intensity level 1: Email
Why are you emailing your friends and family?
Message or call them.
Intensity level 2: Text/DM
Texting or direct messaging has become the default mode of communication for almost everything personal nowadays.7This includes SMS, IG DMs, Messenger, WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat and any other messaging app.
This could be anything from a light and friendly “Hey, it’s been a while”, to setting up a group dinner, to a back-and-forth text conversation that goes on for screens at a time.
The general rule is that texting should be lighthearted and fun or about working out logistical plans like where everyone wants to have dinner.
Leave those for a phone call or in-person.
Intensity level 3: Phone call
People don’t really call on a regular basis anymore.9For younger readers, humans used to call each other regularly on the phone, leave messages on answering machines and anything that you would text nowadays was said over the phone or by… writing a letter.
I personally only do calls/video calls for work and to catch up with geographically-distant friends every month or two.
Phone calls are more intense than a text message and are usually reserved for things like:
- “I’m here on the corner but can’t find you”.
- To clear up any misunderstanding that comes from texting.
- Catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
- Anything that’s super, super urgent and requires a lot of back-and-forth explanation.
Intensity level 4: In-person
Face-to-face in-person conversations are as intense as it gets.
Not only are you communicating with your words, but your body language, facial expressions, vocal tonality and physical touch are also in play.
“In-person communications” sounds super-geeky, but it’s really when you get together with friends or family to spend time over a meal, a coffee or just to hang out.
Talking with someone in-person is the best time to have serious conversations about relationships, family and personal affairs. Most people make the mistake of trying to resolve these things over texting or the phone – when really they need to be worked out in-person.
What To Do Next
Pick your medium of communication based on:
- Importance and urgency in business.
- Content and intensity in your personal life.
A simple way to implement a hierarchy of communication is to go about your life normally for a week or two, and see if you’re following the hierarchy – or breaking it.
Business owners and managers – use the diagram I’ve provided above to set up your own Hierarchy of Communication SOP. And then check out my article on how business owners can set up remote working for their teams.
Everyone else – if you enjoyed this article, check out the Basic Social Skills Stack as well.
- i.e., internal communications.
- Work doesn’t get done if you’re in a meeting.
- e.g., Tettra, Confluence, Asana, Jira, Dropbox, Google Drive etc. This includes any CRMs as well.
- This is commonly done using @name on most platforms.
- Some companies are just really, really slow on email.
- i.e., don’t blow up someone’s phone with twenty-plus text messages.
- This includes SMS, IG DMs, Messenger, WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat and any other messaging app.
- Or anything that you don’t want the Internet to see.
- For younger readers, humans used to call each other regularly on the phone, leave messages on answering machines and anything that you would text nowadays was said over the phone or by… writing a letter.
Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet.