Defaulting to email? Beware …

Businessman sending messages by smartphoneWhen participants in Zoomly’s ‘How to communicate for clarity’ workshop pause to take a brief self-assessment, they often realise they default to one or two methods – which may not be the best for their message. Reassurance that they’re not alone is needed, and then we can get down to work. So first, let’s deal with the most common default – email – and then let’s consider some alternatives.

Why do we default to email?
Email is the default communication medium for many people in organisations. It’s available on all our devices, all of the time. If our systems support it, we can track back through exchanges between ourselves and others, checking who said what, when. We can send meeting requests, documents for checking, videos for amusement. We’ve become accustomed to it over all the other options available.
Tip: identify the tasks you do where email gets the best results for you.

How much time are you spending on email?
When asked about where their time goes at work, many people will say ‘doing email’. I recently heard of a manager who wanted to help a team member be more productive; they asked the colleague to log how much time they spent on email. Both were shocked at the results of the exercise. I’d love to hear their views on how effective all those emails were in getting stuff done. My guess is that many of them didn’t help productivity, but rather hindered it.
Tip: monitor how much time you spend on email. Just use a timer and note it down.

What’s wrong with email?
My view: it’s partly the medium, but the first thing I think is wrong with email is that most of us use it really badly. If you’ve recently been cc’d (or bcc’d) on a huge long email trail, received an email with no subject line, or a ‘heads up’ that didn’t clarify who needed to do what by when, you’ll have an idea of what I mean. What’s more, we can fall into the trap of assuming ‘sent’ means ‘received, read, understood and actioned’ – when none may have happened.
Tip: See ‘10 tips for writing emails that get read’ for practical ways to make it work more effectively for you.


What alternatives are there?
Plenty. But the more fundamental question to answer first is ‘What do I need to communicate, and with whom?’ Get clear on your message, consider what works best for your recipients – and only when you have these two pointers, select the best medium for it. Here are 6 alternatives you may want to use:

  1. Enterprise chat tools
    Some of Zoomly’s lovely clients are reporting great productivity increases by using different methods, such as Slack, Teams, and/or Yammer that facilitate faster team collaboration via focused channels and threads.
  2. Video conferencing
    Any number of apps can now accommodate web-enabled real-time conversations where people actually see each other. This leads us to be much more succinct and polite with colleagues (you know the old adage about writing only what you’d say to someone’s face, and how that often is forgotten in email).
  3. Notes
    No, I don’t mean an app: try a hand-written note. Obviously you would be wise to keep this to good news and gratitude, or a simple ‘let’s have that coffee’. We can underestimate the impact of a sincere ‘Thank You’ note; it can really make someone’s day.
  4. Call
    Picking up the phone is still the best way I know to unravel an over-complicated cat’s cradle of email threads. Especially if email communications are turning testy, give someone a call and have a chat.
  5. Post
    Yes really. It’s so seldom used by many organisations that it’s actually a way of standing out. No, it’s not the best medium for every message. But a card saying ‘Thanks’, ‘Get well soon’ or ‘Good luck’ can have much more positive impact than an email.
  6. Face to face
    I’m wary of suggesting a meeting, as meetings already crowd too many diaries. (See ‘7 tips for better meetings’ if you’re spending too much time in unproductive meetings.) But going to see a colleague in the same building for a face to face conversation – rather than playing email ping-pong – has much to commend it.

I’m acutely aware that you have more alternatives. Which tools and methods do you use in preference to email?

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’.


Image: ingka.d.jlw-DepositPhotos

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