Technology helps make us more efficient than we have ever been. It allows us to end debates with our friends at a dinner table instantly – we Google the answer right then and there. Services like Spotify and Netflix allow us to no longer worry about renting movies or finding music we will enjoy – they tell us what we will enjoy. We no longer have to take our camera to the local pharmacy and wait 5 days before we see the pictures we took – we can see them instantly on our computers or phones. However, at least in one regard, technology is slowing us down and corroding the way we work. Most Millennials, and even some too old to be considered Millennials, rely far too heavily on email for communication, slowing down the pace of decisions and actions.
I see this issue most when dealing with individuals who are new to the workforce however, this is not just a “first job” issue. When tasks are assigned that require collaboration with others, their first inclination is to send an email. Most of the time, they have not met the person they are collaborating with nor do they have a significant relationship with the person they are emailing. I see this happen even if the person they have been asked to collaborate with is just down the hall.
I have a few problems with individuals using email and thinking it is always better than an in-person or live phone conversation.
First, most of these individuals make the assumption that email is more efficient because they do not want to “bother” the other person. I understand that most of us are regular users of text messaging and email as a communication mechanism in our personal lives. However, we have a relationship with those people and have already established what works and does not work in our communication patterns. We know that aunt Lucy does not know how to text and will always immediately call you when you text so you might as well just call. We know that our nephew will never answer the phone and will only respond via a text with the latest emoji. I do not understand why people assume that the same communication methods that are effective in their personal lives will work for them as they enter the workforce. Most often they are communicating with a completely different demographic. Why automatically assume that a particular communication mechanism will work best? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply ask and then adjust?
Second, I do not believe email is always more efficient. Sometimes, a live conversation can speed up the issue resolution cycle from hours, even days, to a few minutes. Take for example the process of setting up a meeting when you are not on a shared calendar system. If you email colleagues in accounting about meeting to discuss how they use their existing ERP to complete routine taks, you first have to introduce yourself, then introduce the project on which you are working, then go back-and-forth over email about what dates/times work for them. This whole exchange can take up to a dozen email messages.. The back and forth questioning can result in delays of hours and possibly days.
Now, what if you asked the person who assigned you the task where the accounting office is located. You walk over to your accounting colleague’s office and you see that she has pictures of a toddler in her office and she has a degree from the University of Michigan hanging on the wall. You pop in and politely ask her if she has 5 minutes of time to spare or if you should come back at another time. Bobby Your colleague says now is no problem and you are able to quickly brief her on your project and needs then set up a time to walk through the ERP system.
At the end of the conversation you mention that you also graduated from the University of Michigan and majored in Computer Science. Your colleague shares a quick story and asks if a local bar is still operating in Ann Arbor. It is, and you mention you used to go their every Thursday night with a group of friends. The entire exchange lasts 10 minutes. Which approach (email or in person) would have yielded the most efficient use of your shared time?
My third issue is that it is challenging to build relationships using email alone – as earlier.suggested in my second point. Tone, context, and even meaning can sometimes get lost in an email. In my scenario you would have likely succeeded at scheduling a meeting with your colleague. However, you would not have started building a relationship on common ground.
Finally, I do believe email can assist us as a powerful communication mechanism in our workplaces. I find email to be useful to follow up or summarize a conversation ensuring is on the same page. Email can also be useful when gathering thoughts and explaining complex concepts to an audience. In such a scenario, a single email can replace several meetings. Using email to extend a relationship or to expand communication can be very powerful but only if an initial common ground exists.