Management Communication: Digital, Telephone, or Face-to-Face?

I was recently told, “You’re not going to believe this, but one of my friends was just let go for laying off her employees by email.”

Imagine how her colleagues must have felt when their termination notice was communicated electronically; unappreciated, disposable, and confused. An email disaster like this may sound unusual, but I regularly hear variations of similar stories in the business world.

Over the past decade, email and text messages have become increasingly important forms of communication in the workplace. It is estimated that worldwide email traffic alone totaled 333.2 billion messages per day (2022).

As a communication coach/consultant, people often ask me how these digital channels can be used effectively to lead, manage, and communicate in the workplace. My overarching advice is three-fold:

  1. Identify the communication channels available at your disposal as a leader/communicator
  2. Use each option wisely and in an acceptable way for the message you need to convey and target your audience
  3. Follow basic guidelines to model and reinforce professional email etiquette within your work environment

Effective leaders understand the advantages and the differences between the three main elements of workplace communication: digital (email & text), telephone, and face-to-face/ interpersonal communication. They utilize each aspect depending upon the type of message that needs to be delivered and an analysis of the intended recipient(s) needs, bias, knowledge, and anticipated reaction.

A competent leader, for instance, would never use email to communicate a difficult or confrontational message, where tone and intention can be easily misinterpreted, causing great hardship for all parties involved. Instead, a good leader understands that it’s best to convey uncomfortable messages in person, where clear, two-way dialogue, thorough explanations, and opportunities for questions and answers can promote a “meeting of the minds” (or at least a basic understanding from the recipient of what needs to be improved). This approach is especially pertinent to those recipients who tend to be overly sensitive or defensive.

Am I suggesting that leaders avoid using digital channels? Impossible! Besides the fact that it would be unrealistic in today’s work environment, email and text (especially with the growth of Slack and other popular apps) offer many distinct advantages over other forms of communication in the workplace when used correctly. Email is quick and efficient (eliminates “phone tag”) and is a cost-effective option for conversing with colleagues off-site. Also, there is no better tool for sending documents or communicating the exact basic message to many recipients simultaneously.

However, the increase in email communication in the workplace brings with it the need for a better understanding and practice of professional email etiquette. In addition, while some may view email as casual and treat it as such, I always remind my clients that their emails reflect their professionalism (or lack thereof) and set the tone for how they gain respect, establish trust, and manage effectively.

Now more than ever, digital communication is changing the dynamics of how we engage in the business world. I have found that this type of communication is most efficient and effective when everyone in the same workplace agrees to some “rules of the road,” such as “Who do I need to cc?” or “What needs to be in the subject line?” or “When is it appropriate to forward?” To achieve this goal, I strongly encourage businesses to adopt, educate, and reinforce professional email etiquette. The result will be clearer and more efficient electronic communication that increases productivity and camaraderie across the entire organization.

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