Do you spend a good amount of time each day reading emails on one of your numerous devices with a screen? Studies have shown that we spend just over one month a year reading email. Sometimes these emails tend to be a chain of conversations that you simply were CC'ed on and don't care about. Other times you are not sure of the action you need to take as a result of reading the email. When this happens, you send back yet another email with a clarifying question. I'm not even going to get into all the "reply to all" emails that clog up our in boxes.
In our research on virtual teams, 74% of respondents to our survey said that email was their first communication vehicle. In a separate study, 88% said that they use a smart phone to read email. If you are like me, an email that requires me to scroll on my phone more than once gets relegated to the “read it when I'm at a larger screen" group. I agree that this is not a good way to prioritize. Sometimes we wait for an email response for long periods of time. I say just pick up the phone!
Email is not the enemy. It’s an extremely useful communication and collaboration tool. However, everything in moderation. What's problematic is that many use email in all situations and that frequently leads to confusion and misunderstood intent. This happens every day. It's important to use the right communication technology in the right situation. Would a runner wear workbooks during a marathon? Would a construction worker wear sandals on the job site? Would you tell your virtual team, in an email, how a reorganization is going to affect them? The answers to all of these questions is no! Why? Because the vehicle doesn't match the application.
If you are on virtual team, we recommend that you strategically use a variety of communication tools that match the intent of the communication. The strategy that our team uses is what we call the "complexity" rule. Let me explain. On our virtual team, we use instant message (texting), email, phone, a number of virtual platforms and virtual platform recordings (Skype allows you three minutes to record a message). The complexity rule says that simple communications of low controversy can be shared via IM or email. Complex communications, where potential for confusion and questions exist, should be communicated via phone or virtual platform or virtual recording.
We are social beings that need context to understand and relationship to feel connected. When the communication is complex, and we don't get to ask questions, we make up stories that are negative about the information and the intent. We can't use email in these situations because it provides no social connection for relationship and, unless you are a stellar email writer, little context. When I've attempted to write my business partner emails that included a nuanced sensitive message, I've failed. I know this because I get more questions or my intent isn't fully presented. As a result, I realized that in a two minute Skype video, I could say the same things and be fully understood. Your voice and body language bring an authenticity to the words that emails just can't do. I didn't have to word-smith and it saved me a lot of time. On the other end of the spectrum, IM works great for short answer questions or thoughts where context isn't as important and you need to get their attention right away.
Here are some tips on virtual communication tools and when it is appropriate to use.
- IM - Use for yes/no questions or one-sentence thoughts. Use where context not as important and emotion can be easily explained with an emoticon. We use IM regularly to get someone's immediate attention. However, be careful when communicating with different time zones, as some people leave their phones on when they sleep and IM's might disturb them.
- Email - Use for messages of low controversy that can be conveyed in ten sentences or less. If it must be longer, highlight the important issues. Make the subject line very descriptive. Put the "ask" in the first few sentences. If it's below the scroll line, they may never see it.
- Phone - Pick up the phone if your communication will take more that two emails to explain. Conference lines are OK for multiple participants. Don't let people hide, make everyone participate.
- Virtual Platform - Use virtual platforms for interviews, team collaboration, team meetings, performance reviews, feedback, conflict resolution and complex decisions. At evoke, we insist upon use of a web-cam as it creates a more collaborative feel.