posted by Joe Anaya on June 23rd, 2014

I was at a party this weekend, having a pleasant conversation with a guy, when his cell phone rang. He glanced at the number and excused himself and went off to take the call. A few minutes later he came back and bemoaned “Why is it was so hard for my workers to figure things out on their own?” I told him because he was always available to solve it for them, and I explained my 20-minute guideline.

It goes something like this.

If you get a call from work, wait 20 minutes; then return the call. 20 minutes is long enough for the staff to get antsy waiting and try to figure it out themselves. But 20 minutes is not so long that if they can’t figure it out, they aren’t screwed by the time lost.

I discovered this Goldilocks time frame when I was in charge of an editing facility. When I was first put in charge and I got a call, I diligently answered no matter the circumstance, leaving movie theaters, excusing myself from dinner, or even ending a call with someone else.

Typically, the calls were panicked cries for help with something that I describe as “pilot error.” They were doing something wrong. More often than not, the client couldn’t figure out how our system worked, even though he assured us he was an expert when we allowed him to work the system without an approved editor.

One day, I was not able to answer or return a call until 20 minutes later. To my pleasure, by the time I called, the problem was solved. The renter had figured out the problem but thanked me for checking in. From that moment on, I started experimenting with waiting different lengths of time.

10 minutes, they’re still panicked and struggling or just waiting for me to call and solve it for them. 30 minutes and they felt like I was unresponsive. But waiting 20 minutes was just right, more often than not, the problem was solved before I returned the call. And they were typically, in a good mood and therefore grateful to me for being available.

Occasionally, the problem wasn’t solved, but my solution was that much closer because they had tried many of the processes I would have recommended. There was a quick series of questions I asked, “Did you try this? How about this?” etc. Eventually, we’d get to something they hadn’t tried or we’d come up with a different solution. So, 20 minutes in the mind of the panicked never seemed so long that they felt neglected or snubbed. And they were still grateful that I had called to help.

So, the next time you get an unexpected call from work, DON’T answer. Listen to the message or read the text to make sure the place isn’t on fire or someone hasn’t died, then call back in 20 minutes. I’m betting you’ll be pleasantly surprised (or possibly fired.).

File Under Working Stiff