Through first-hand experience, I’ve figured out that we are all over-dependent on email and often choose poorly when deciding how to communicate an important message. I worked remotely for two years, separated from the office by two time zones and over 2500 miles - in a role where the transfer of abstract concepts and new ideas was necessary for achieving organizational goals. At the beginning, my productivity soared as I was no longer captive to ad-hoc demands on my attention (think: cube fly-bys); requests would sit nicely in my inbox until I was ready to move on, and attended to only if urgent.
As time went on, I made the mistake of relying on email too much to convey messages that were important. My emails became short stories, the number of email exchanges with someone to clarify a point increased, and at times some emails were misinterpreted as contentious – or responded to as being contentious! Email was becoming an activity that required an unusual amount of time as the amount of “word-smithing” required for each email increased.
These types of problems have only become more common due to the number employees working in different places continues to increase and accelerate. It is estimated that by 2015, 1.3 billion people will be working remotely,or almost 40% of the workforce and they will all be sending emails. This increase in the remote workforce means an increase in email and there is a time-cost associated with email. Although email is a great tool to cover large distances quickly, communicating a complete thought on a matter often requires more effort than simply picking up the phone.
I soon lost the feel for the office environment and the company culture. Some projects would take longer to complete because instead of making a quick phone call, we resorted to email, resulting in unclear, confusing, and even contradicting understanding of a project’s requirements. With a reduction in the closeness of our working relationship, plus the confusion stemming from multiple email exchanges over several days, the contention would begin to rise, further harming the working relationship.
That is when my manager at the time gave me very simple yet effective advice: “Take it out of email.”
By working with someone via a phone call or video you get the context surrounding the words, you care about the person who needs your help instead of a name, and you reduce the number of back-and-forth cycles to communicate an idea or intent. Email will only continue to confound the issue, and you will bleed productivity and goodwill.
Video is especially great for providing positive feedback, whereas in email such positive feedback usually falls flat. Next time you would normally tell a subordinate, “Thanks for the great job on that project.” in email – instead tell them face-to-face over video. The weight of your words will carry tenfold the value than a monotone email.