Have you ever experienced the scenario where a team member is lamenting their colleague’s lack of responsiveness? The email chain has gone back and forth ten times with clarifying questions and still there is no resolution. In your mind, the situation is ridiculous. The people writing the emails are sitting three cubicles away from each other. This happens far too often in daily work life. So, when should we use email vs. face-to-face communication and how can we get the most productive use out of written communication?
Humans have evolved to communicate face to face. We read subtle clues in both body language and tone that help us to interpret intent. These clues are stripped away when we choose to communicate via email. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that we are hard wired to assume the worst. Rare is the misunderstanding where an email is interpreted as more positive than it was intended. More often, the voice in our heads reading the email adds a sarcastic tone, making us question what the sender really meant when they said, “I don’t care where we meet. You choose.” And don’t even get me started on the email chains forwarded with “Thoughts?”.
Should you pick up the phone or try for a face-to-face meeting? While phone is often better than email, even that form of technology strips out some of the subtle tones of our voices, making it more difficult to express and receive the full spectrum of information being sent. Face to face is best. That is, human face to face. Research shows that people on a video conference spend most of their time looking at the small picture of themselves in the corner, rather than the person they are communicating with. Imagine a face-to-face meeting where I pulled out a small mirror and kept looking at myself instead of looking at you. Weird. That’s video conferencing.
The average office worker in 2017 received 90 emails per day and sent 40 according to research from the Radicati Group and the volume was growing at 4.4% annually. This volume of communication has forced our work day into an exercise in triage. So, when you have a message to deliver, follow these rules to ensure it gets through:
- Email is an excellent productivity tool best used to confirm a communication, not to instruct.
- Face to face > telephone > email to avoid misunderstandings.
- Assume the recipient of your email is only going to skim it and use concise subject headers and opening sentences to assist in their triage.
- Do what you can (including using emojis) to make the tone of the message clear.
Bellrock is an implementation and change management firm based in Vancouver, Canada. We get results. If you enjoyed this article, consider sharing it with your networks.