Back in the olden days, let’s say the early 80s — 1980s, that is — there were really only a few communication options: in person, landline phone or snail mail. Ah, a simpler time. But, we now live in a world with 25 kinds of Oreos and a wide array of ways to get a message to a colleague. Choice is great, but it can also be confusing. Suppose you need final approval on the new logo design. Do you send the CEO an email or give him a call? If you call, should it be his office number or cell? Perhaps a text would be better, or maybe an instant message? It’s easy to get overwhelmed. While each situation is different, here are some good rules of the road for deciding which way to go.
Those of us old enough to remember life before email know that its widespread adoption changed business communications in a revolutionary and fundamental way. There’s a good reason that it became instantly ubiquitous. The ability to create message threads and store correspondence for future reference helped people become more responsive and organized. Although there are other options available, email is great when:
- Multiple people are involved in a conversation.
- A “paper” trail is needed for compliance, contractual or legal reasons.
- You’ll need to easily be able to find and reference the conversation again.
- The issue is straightforward and “tone” is not important.
- The conversation revolves around another document or image that can be attached to the email for reference.
For example, I’d probably choose email to get my CEO’s approval on the new logo because I can embed or attach it to the email, making it easy for her to refer to it as she replies. It’s also probably a good idea to have documentation of a decision like this one.
Instant message or chat
Although IM may have started as a way for teenagers to gossip with each other over AOL, it’s really caught on in the business world. The instant gratification is fantastic for the right kind of conversation. Here are a few situations when it works best:
- When you only need a one-sentence answer. Email is probably better for more complex issues, but IM is great for, “I’m ordering business cards, do you need more?”
- You need to get someone’s attention quickly. Chat is perfect if someone is late for a meeting or they are on the phone, but you need to let them know that a visitor has arrived.
- The issue is trivial. IM is great for, “Pizza or tacos?” not great for personnel issues or major decisions.
Text is a bit trickier. Some people love it and respond to text messages day or night; others see it as an emergency-only mode of communication. (Then there’s me: I usually forget to charge my phone.) This means it’s a good idea to ask someone about their preference for text before assuming it will be welcome. If it is, here are a few times it works well:
- The message can’t wait until morning.
- The problem is simple enough to resolve through text messaging.
- The person who receives it will think it was text-worthy.
Telephone has been the go-to tool for communications for more than 130 years. There’s a reason for that. Sometimes issues require a more fluid back-and-forth than the other options provide. Sometimes tone of voice and specific emphasis are critical to understanding. It’s best to pick up the phone if:
- The topic is complex.
- You need to discuss nuanced issues or problems.
- A prior email exchange didn’t resolve the issue or question.
Face to face
With today’s distributed workforce and strong trend toward remote work, face to face conversations aren’t always feasible, but they are absolutely the best choice for certain situations. These include:
- Topics that are emotional or personal.
- New or complex ideas are being shared.
- Hands-on demonstration or training is needed.
Video conferencing is also a viable solution if you can’t get in the same room for these circumstances, but at least once in a while, it’s great to get folks in the same room.
Collaboration technology has transformed the way we do business, and with a little thought about which tool to use when, it can simplify your professional life. After all, sometimes all you want is a plain old Oreo.