You cannot write about workplace communication without being asked, “So, is email more effective than meetings or the other way around? Or maybe we should replace everything with lightweight Instant Messaging like Slack?” We all like simple solutions and definitive answers, and with all the hype around Meet-Less Monday, a world without email, and whatnot, it is easy to get lost and look for a simple way out.
So, here’s my answer. Ready? The perfect communication tool…. (drumroll…) does not exist!
None of the tools and platforms we have is perfect. Each of them has some benefits and quite a few downsides. More importantly, we tend to mess up things by misusing (or overusing) our tools, so whatever their advantage is, it is soon replaced with overhead and frustration. Looking for the perfect tool is not the solution — it is often the problem. When we try to use a single tool for every scenario, regardless of what we expect to achieve, things go south, creating more problems than we can possibly solve.
But fear not! I am not going to leave you with that gloomy statement. While there’s no one perfect tool, there are optimal tools for various scenarios. When we understand the mechanics and limitations of each platform and, no less importantly, how our human nature tends to misuse them, we can find the optimal platform for each context. When we know what we expect from an interaction, we can choose the right communication method to govern it. Generative Communication is intentful. Knowing what we intend to achieve in the exchange is crucial not only to deciding what to say or write but also to how to interact.
But before we delve into the different use cases, please allow me to reframe the question. Email, meetings, and instant messaging are concrete examples of communication methods. To better understand which platform is best for each scenario, we should talk about the nature of the interaction supported by these tools. Many people use the terms synchronous communication and asynchronous communication, but I believe these definitions are misleading. Instead, I propose to talk about: Real-Time Communication, Near-Time Communication, and One-Way Communication.
Real-Time Communication, as expected, is done in real-time without delay or mediation. Face-to-face meetings obviously fall into this category, as do phone and video calls. When done right, Real-Time Communication requires and enables the participants’ full attention, which might seem obvious until you realize just how rare this is today. The reason for this rarity is we all got used to Near-Time Communication. And for the most part, it is a mess.
Near-Time Communication includes email, instant messaging, and (in case you are into this kind of thing) voice or video messaging. Initially, these platforms were designed to be asynchronous: they were meant to allow communication across space and time such that every participant could engage in the conversation on their own terms. But soon, our usage of these platforms became quite different. Instead of allowing more space to contemplate, process, research, and think before we respond, we found ourselves in an ongoing communication havoc, with multiple conversations occurring at any given moment. Our communication has become continuous, spontaneous, fractured, unfocused, and shallow. Just look at a typical email thread in your inbox with dozens of replies, an overwhelming palette of colors, and multiple levels of indentation, all suppose to make following the discussion easier but result in the complete opposite.
Near-Time Communication appears asynchronous until you realize we are conditioned to respond in near real-time. And if that’s not bad enough, each time some Near-Time Communication tool pings us, we respond (or at least get distracted), and this has a severe impact on our real work — what we actually need to deliver.
Despite this gloomy description, I am not suggesting throwing away emails and instant messaging. Near-Time Communication has its place, as does Real-Time Communication, as long as we use it with the right intent. But before we get to that, there is one more type of communication that is often neglected in the discussion: One-Way Communication. What’s so special about it? As you might guess, it does not invite others to respond. More on that soon.
So, what is the perfect communication tool? As I said, it depends…
Sharing is Caring
Imagine you have a weekly status report to share with several stakeholders. You have important information you wish to align people on — information that can affect their actions or decisions. Such a report probably includes some pieces of data and your analysis and insights. It is not rare that the distribution of such a report quickly grows and might consist of dozens of people. So, you compile the report, send an email… and take cover.
I wrote about this scenario in a previous post, but I didn’t go into the details of how much such an email thread costs. So, let’s do the math. Say you send an email report to 50 people. Let’s also assume only 10% of them have something to say about it, which they are likely to do using the infamous Reply All. This alone will generate a total of 300 emails across the organization. If only two of these responses each trigger another response, we are facing another 100 emails. The frictionless nature of email (and even more so of instant messaging) creates the illusion that none of this has any cost. But by now, it is already well established that any distraction (like that “ping” from your email client) defocuses you for more than 20 minutes. For this discussion, let’s reduce this cost to 15 minutes, and let’s assume only half of these emails are actually distracting people (some of them might be ignored due to some automatic rule or arrive at a time when your email client is closed… theoretically). So we face an overhead of 15 minutes for each of the 200 remaining emails. That’s 50 full hours! More than a week’s worth of work. And that’s for a single thread.
Near-Time Communication has a huge cost when you share information (no matter how important it is) with a large group of people because email and instant messaging are tools that encourage us to respond. And responses in such a distribution have an exponential cost. At the same time, when we share such information, we need to ask ourselves: Do we really expect a discussion? Do we expect a discussion on the report as a whole? With all these people? In most of these cases, the answer is No. Maybe some concrete issues require a discussion, but I’m willing to bet each issue could be discussed with no more than 1-5 people. The report as a whole, on the other hand, in that wide distribution, is shared for the benefit of the stakeholders, and we don’t really expect it to trigger a conversation. One-Way Communication is, therefore, by far the best option for sharing such information.
My preferred One-Way Communication method is placing the information I wish to share in a predefined shared location. This approach works perfectly with periodical communication like a status report because anyone interested in the info knows where to find it. Even more importantly, they can access the report on their own terms — when they feel they need the information, as opposed to when I decide to share it. Many of the platforms that enable such communication, such as Atlassian’s Confluence, also enable people to be notified when the page changes, so if someone does want to know when new information is available without having to check the page proactively, they can easily set it up. But the essential feature of platforms that enable One-Way Communication is that they are typically not used for discussing the information, reducing the noise to practically zero. Instead of 400 emails sent and received, only the people who need the information get it, and they get it when they need it.
Note that some One-Way Communication platforms like Confluence do have features like inline comments that enable discussions. While these could be effective in some scenarios, it is a slippery slope. If you use discussion-enabling features on your weekly report, for example, you will soon end up with the same number of distractions. I recommend turning these features on or off per case based on your needs (after doing the math).
Identifying the cases where One-Time Communication is most effective is a game changer. In a typical setup, this act alone can reduce the number of emails across the organization by orders of magnitude without losing transparency. On the contrary, having a shared location with the relevant information needed for making a decision or taking action is more transparent than sending it to a closed (even if extensive) list of recipients. But, of course, One-Way Communication is not the optimal solution for all scenarios. We often have a question we need people to respond to, even in the context of a weekly report. That is where the second level of communication kicks in.
Yes, No, Black, White
Near-Time Communication, such as email or instant messaging, is an excellent choice for concise discussions in limited distribution. How short and how limited? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I prefer to start with a strict approach and then thoughtfully consider per case if there’s a good reason to flex my guidelines. So, for this discussion, I’d say that in a workplace environment, Near-Time Communication is best for conversations with one cycle of responses and no more than five people (and maybe even that’s too much).
Now, these are not really discussions in the full sense of the word. The nature of Near-Time Communication doesn’t allow an effective dialogue with more than simple answers. So, I tend to use emails and instant messaging only when I have questions I expect short and definitive answers to, for example, when I am missing a piece of information that someone else has; or when I want to confirm an idea with a couple of people — to get a go-no-go statement. If I share a status report using One-Way Communication, and some specific point requires concrete action by a couple of stakeholders, I will send them (and only them) an email with that highlight, asking them to confirm they will take that action.
At this point, you might argue that you don’t have any control over how such discussions evolve. You might intend to get a short reply, but then someone replies with a fuzzy statement or tons of new data that changes your understanding entirely and calls for a discussion. This is where defining a Communication Contract is essential. You or the person responding to your question should know when to switch to a different communication method. The fact that a discussion started in email doesn’t mean we are locked into this platform until everything is resolved. When what we thought to be a simple question turns into a thread of multiple responses, we are in the realm of deeper discussions, and no Near-Time Communication tool can effectively support it.
While we cannot control how the discussion evolves, in many cases, we can predict it based on our experience. Some discussions cannot be resolved with one cycle of answers by definition. Some people might avoid providing a short, definitive answer without knowing more details. In such cases, there is no point in starting the discussion on a Near-Time Communication platform, and you’d better skip directly to the Deep Discussion scenario.
One of the common mistakes people make in workplace communication is trying to avoid meetings. The reason is the authentic frustration with how meetings are typically done, but the result is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Nothing can beat a real-time conversation for deep discussions that involve back-and-forth exchange of information and ideas, challenging these ideas, and considering alternatives. Whether done over the phone, Zoom, Teams, or face-to-face, only Real-Time Communication provides the setup for being fully attentive to and focused on the discussion. Emails and chats are physically incapable of capturing the dynamics of a real-time conversation, and their spontaneous, fractured nature makes it almost impossible to be engaged in the discussion.
Of course, for Real-Time Communication to be effective, we need to design it thoughtfully. Simply going into a meeting without any preparation and hoping for an effective deep discussion is unrealistic (and the frustration level associated with meetings proves that). Defining not only the goal of the meeting but the iAIM Statement is an essential step that can focus the discussion and make the meeting much more effective. Preparing written ideas before the meeting starts is another practice that increases the value of any minute spent on Real-Time Communication. Whatever methods you use, to make a meeting effective, you have to invest in it — an investment that will pay off in the form of reaching a bottom line in a shorter time and reducing to zero the frustration typically associated with meetings. At the end of the day, there is no replacement for an unmediated, real-time conversation when you need to overcome a challenge or make an important decision with others.
Magic solutions are rare. Generic guidelines that solve any problem you might come across are a fantasy. If we wish the way we communicate to serve us, provide us with value, and help us co-create, we must choose the right tool for a concrete context. If you always think of the same communication tool by default, be it a meeting, an email, or a chat, you are doing something wrong. All these tools are useful, but only when we intentfully orchestrate and use them at the right time for the proper purpose.