Have you ever received emails that really should have been chats? These are back and forth answers to simple questions that fill up your inbox and create an unnecessarily long email string. It looks like this:
When should we start?
I don’t know, next week? Tuesday?
Sure, but Wednesday is better.
I can’t Wednesday, how about Friday?
7 emails back and forth. You get the point.
Have you ever received a text message that probably should have been an email? It’s long, has multiple, important points to remember, and you find yourself in an endless thumb-scroll to get to the end. Then, because the information is valuable, you might copy it from your text to your email so you can store it in a folder.
Or perhaps you’ve never noticed of any of this because you’re just trying to stay ahead of the endless barrage of communications?
Small and seemingly insignificant aspects of email, text, and instant messaging can waste your time and energy but also compromise your work product. Here is a common complaint, “Keeping track of and using all the different ways to communicate is a job in and of itself!”
Another leader said,
“I have nowhere to hide. If I don’t respond to my email fast enough, I get a text. If I don’t respond to the text, Messenger pops up. At this point, I don’t want to reply out of sheer annoyance that this person can’t seem consider that I might actually be doing something important.”
This leader worked on a team and for a boss who had never discussed how to communicate with each other electronically, let alone identify what tool is best for certain situations. They aren’t alone. In fact, most of the leaders and teams I work with don’t do this or think about it. Email, text, and chat are now so commonplace and fully integrated into work that there are rarely any boundaries set (except for those that keep the company out of legal hot water).
Understanding at work what communication tool is best and setting some boundaries and expectations will not only save time but also improve your work. This week we discuss email for correspondence, text for short messages, and instant messaging (or, *GASP* a phone call) for conversation.
Email for Correspondence
Just like its name indicates, email is electronic mail. The purpose of it is to send correspondence like letters, memos, and newsletters electronically. This is because it has full formatting functionality to bold, underline, and insert visuals. It has the functionality to file and organize. This is the tool for transmitting information to a group and exchanging information between smaller groups and individuals. It is not a good tool for conversing or dialogue. We’ll get to that in a bit.
This is the most frequently used electronic communication tool so it’s worth providing additional guidance and tips to improve and maximize its use. You can also read Write Better Emails (or teach others to) for more information on email. Here are a few tips.
Use CC and BCC appropriately
CC (Carbon Copy) – The CC field is to include others who need to be informed but aren’t expected to respond. Use the CC field for people who are closely tied to the content, may be impacted by it, and will understand why they have been cc’d. Do not use the CC field to tattle or expose others. Such as, CC someone’s boss or colleagues because they haven’t replied to you, disagree, or make a mistake. It will make you look less professional and only creates animosity. Pick up the phone and talk about it instead.
BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) – This field is best used when communicating to a mass audience and you want to protect the identities and contact information of the recipients. It is also handy for preventing a Reply-All to a large group. Do not use BCC to sneak people into a conversation. Too often, the person who was BCC’d forwards the email or replies informing the recipients of “secret readers” in the email. It feels like eavesdropping and perpetuates a lack of transparency on teams. It can also compromise the integrity of the sender.
Avoid One and Two-Word Replies
Most organizations have high email traffic and volume. Reducing the number of emails is a welcome activity for many. Simply and kindly state “No more one and two-word replies.” Then, rally around the notion that everyone can be implicitly grateful, agreeable to the obvious, and congratulatory. This approach greatly reduces the number of unnecessary emails such as: Thanks! Yes! Sounds great! Ok! Congratulations! Whoo hoo! and Awesome!
Remind everyone that a voice-to-voice or, better yet, face-to-face congratulations means more anyway.
Define Response Times
Set a consistent expectation for a reasonable time to wait for a response. Many agree upon a 24-hour window. This doesn’t have to imply an answer is provided within 24hrs, rather just a confirmation of receipt and information about what actions will be taken as a result of receiving the email. Some teams have an even longer window for correspondence, like 2-3 days. If a response is required sooner than the expected response time, then email may not be the right tool.
Quick answers and clarifications don’t typically fall into the category of correspondence.
Text for Short Messages
SMS (Short Message Service) messages, or texts, are sent between mobile phones. Because mobile phones are largely carried with us, they are efficient and effective tools for getting quick, short answers and clarifications. Use texting for yes/no questions, fast answers, and topics and content that need little clarification or explanation. No one wants to zoom in and out of your PDF attachment on their phone, and no one wants to have to write an essay with only their thumbs. Text situations require less typing. People typically type better on a full-size keyboard so engaging in information exchange on a smart phone is harder and more time consuming.
In addition, phones are likely resting right next to us. Texts steal focus and distract attention from the task at hand. If the information being sent is not urgent or required to be considered and responded to in the immediate moment, then send that information via email.
Instant Message for Conversation
Rather than emailing back and forth clarifying questions and concerns, resulting in multi-page email strings, use chat or instant messages. They are now ubiquitous in the work setting, though didn’t use to be. So ubiquitous that one of the most common work productivity and messaging tools, Slack, has become a verb (as in, “hey, can you Slack that to me?”). These messaging services are built for conversing back and forth and are designed for dialogue.
If an understanding hasn’t been achieved in two to three email replies, pivot to instant messaging (or the phone). Have a quick conversation and then document what was discussed via the last email.
And to be honest, a lot can still be lost via instant message. If you find yourself having to use emojis to explain your tone, or find yourself having to explain what you mean/don’t mean too much, then a phone call may be best.
Communicating effectively electronically is yet another competency expected for all. Be the leader and team that talks about electronic communication, how to use it effectively, and put guidelines in place to maximize their use. It will not only improve the way work gets done but it will also improve the work experience for all.
If you haven’t already, subscribe to the blog at the bottom of this page to be notified when each post is published.
Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.