Emails and online chats have become the predominant ways of communication in the workplace, replacing live, face-to-face conversations. Technology-based ways of communication are considered more effective, as they allow workers to get their message across quickly while multitasking. It’s more common now that a worker would rather chat online with the colleague sitting in the next cubicle rather than get up, walk over and talk face-to-face.
Similarly, because it’s faster, more convenient and effective, in many cases emailing is preferred to talking in person. But an email can never work like a live conversation, simply because the message is transmitted so differently in the two forms of communication. In an email, everything is in the words (their presence or lack thereof), maybe to an extent in the punctuation: but the meaning is mostly and solely carried by the words that have been typed. On the other hand, in a live conversation, the message is transmitted in a variety of ways: through words, tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, body language. The gestalt of all these pieces of information is then interpreted to form the meaning of what’s being communicated. In a live conversation, each party uses these different ways to communicate their point. Importantly, each party gets to experience the multiple ways in which the other party communicates their point. On the other hand, in an email, it is very difficult to see through more than the words it contains. Although while typing the email each party might experience a similar tone of voice or body language as they would in a live conversation, they never get to see what the other party experiences or how they react. Thus, in a way, through email, only part of the information is really being communicated.
In addition, plain words, stripped of body language, tone of voice and eye contact, could be open to multiple interpretations. You know what the other person says in his email, but what you don’t know and could only guess is how he is saying it; and many times that makes quite the difference. After all, in the workplace, it is sometimes (if not most times) inappropriate to place a smiley face at the end of the sentence if you want to “soften the tone” of what you are saying. Similarly, it is very inappropriate if not rude, to use capital letters, bold or underline the text in order to communicate the urgency and the importance of what you are saying. It gets even more complicated when in an effort to be effective in communications and work tasks, people fail to pay attention to basics in their writing. Many times employees use abbreviations, omit greeting lines, and fail to proof their emails, which further reduces the quality of the email communication. Then, the reduced quality is often compensated by increased quantity. Thus, in case of misinterpretation or in need of clarification a worker might have to send several emails in order to get his point across – something that could probably be accomplished with a single phone call or a quick chat face-to-face.
All this is not to say that technology-based communication is ineffective, but only that it might not be always as effective as we think it is. The choice of communication channel should be made such that communication quality and quantity are in good balance. Companies are constantly thinking of effective strategies to improve communication in the workplace. The fact that some of the largest, technology-focused companies are taking steps to improve face-to-face employee communication speaks volumes (At Yahoo, Working from Home Doesn’t Work).