Which Form of Communication Should You Use in the Workplace?

How to decide when to use email, phone, or face-to-face communication.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #110

Instant messages are wonderful! Using poor grammar, no capitalization, and no punctuation may drive Grammar Girl nuts, but it sure makes communication efficient, doesn’t it? Well, no. It’s especially bad for relationships.

Relationships are about emotion. If you’re a computer geek like me, you may have spent a good part of your life not exactly sure what an emotion is. It’s a feeling. Like that thing that happens in your stomach when it’s time for another handful of M&Ms. In relationships, emotion comes across through voice tone and body language. Text messages don’t have voice tone or body language, and “:-)” (a “smiley” emoticon) is not an adequate substitution.

You Need to Develop In-Person Communication Skills

Communicating online doesn’t develop relationship skills. When your desired life partner asks how they look in their current outfit and you tell them the truth (what were you thinking?), you only have a few seconds to rescue the situation. You don’t have time to run to your keyboard, type a smiley face, and show it to them. You have to deal in person.

Use Email for Information

Fortunately, information with no emotions can be safely shared via email. If you want to share your latest sales reports or schedule a time to get together, email, memo, or instant message are great ways to do it. You’re communicating information. Your reader won’t be having an emotional episode while reading. Unless it’s Bernice, but she’s a hopeless case anyway.

Most work communication is facts and figures, so email’s good for that. Sadly, we also have human, emotional relationships with our co-workers-- until we can get them replaced with Stepford humanoid robots. Managing those relationships doesn’t work so well on email.

For Emotion, Pick Up the Phone

The phone gives you unlimited voice tone! You can add emotion, pizzaz, nuance, and sometimes a charming nasal twang to your message. Your voice tone makes meaning crystal clear. When you say, “That was a great job,” they’ll know whether it’s an insult or a compliment.

We think email’s fast, but it’s not. Typing is slow. When your email is over three paragraphs long, call.

Phone’s also faster. We think email’s fast, but it’s not. Typing is slow. When your email is over three paragraphs long, call. Just keep it brief. No catching up on Gossip Girl or General Hospital or Glee. Do that another time.

Manage Strong Emotions in Person

“You’re fired!” seems perfect for a little sticky-note. It’s brief, to-the-point, and can be put on a computer monitor at eye-level where the recipient is sure to see it. But wait--would you use email to tell a supermodel that the company tailor is complaining that she’s up to a size one and needs to start dieting? No, of course not! She’d hunt you down in an instant and have your hide made into a fashionable clutch and a pair of matching pumps. You would break the news in person, carefully, with the utmost respect.

Yet I hear stories of layoffs via email or memo because the managers are too chicken to do it in person. Or in the world of romance, cowardly people break up by email or text message.

Don’t do it!

Give Bad News in Person

When you give bad news, it’s bad enough that the person could get really upset. If your email or sticky note was written in a way that could be considered callous, uncaring, or rude, you can bet they’ll be all over it. They’ll forward it to their friends, their loved ones, their co-workers, your boss, your boss’s boss, the local newspaper, three civil rights groups, and sixteen lawyers. You’ll be sued for slander and abuse, your career will be over, and you’ll live on the streets, mumbling incoherently about email as a productivity-enhancing communication tool. Bad news brings up emotion, so you need to be there in person to manage the drama. Bad news brings up emotion, so you need to be there in person to manage the drama. In person, you also have a good line-of-sight. If, halfway through your speech they’re rummaging around looking for a weapon, you can quickly change the subject or run down the hall screaming for help. I prefer running and screaming; it makes much more exciting news coverage later on.

The Kinds of Messages to Deliver Face to Face

In case you’re having trouble figuring out which messages might provoke an emotional response, here’s a sample list of messages best delivered face-to-face:· Any judgment about a person or the quality of their work.

  • Any topic where you think the other person might lie.

  • Any message that manages the relationship itself. In business, this would be layoffs, demotions, promotions, or hiring offers. In personal life, breakups, proposals, making up, or inviting another partner into your polyamorous family unit.

  • Positive evaluations and Thank you's.

  • Politics, religion, or other issues where people have no facts but lots of opinions.

  • Anything you have to talk to Bernice about.

Face Time Sends a Strong Message, Even in Groups

In addition to helping with difficult situations, face time shows respect. By taking the extra effort to show up in person, we make a real impression. Delivering good news and praise in person conveys so much more than getting an email saying “Congratulations.” And bring your cell phone camera. I did, and I got pictures of me with other people. It was so nice have a social life that didn’t consist of photoshopping myself into pictures of other people having fun.

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com. Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.