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Rex Huppke: Let’s talk, really talk, about workplace email

Email has certainly become our default, but while it’s fast and convenient, I fear it’s making us lazier and less-effective communicators.


Let's talk about workplace communication. You go first.

Oops, sorry, this isn't the best medium for a conversation. I should've thought of that first.

In fact, that's something we should all think about first before deciding how we're going to communicate with someone at work. What's the best way to deliver information? Is it email? Skype? Face to face? A phone call?

Email has certainly become our default, but while it's fast and convenient, I fear it's making us lazier and less-effective communicators. We reflexively send an email when we need to ask a question or share information. The thought of getting up and walking to someone's cubicle — or even just picking up the phone — barely crosses our minds.

It's a bad habit, one that's likely costing us more time than we realize and robbing us of the many brainstorms and positive outcomes that sprout from actual conversations.

In his book "Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It," Phil Simon writes: "At a micro level, communication breakdowns cause myriad problems at work and exacerbate others. The inability to effectively communicate results in all sorts of inefficiencies, misunderstandings, gaffes, squabbles, missed opportunities, and outright disasters."

With email, consider how many times the tone of a note has been misinterpreted. Or how a simple question has led to a lengthy back-and-forth of additional questions and clarifications.

In the book, Simon asks: "How may misunderstandings could have been averted at your organization if two colleagues had simply engaged in a five-minute, in-person conversation or videoconference over Skype?"

"I'm not anti-email, but I am anti-inefficiency," Simon said in an interview. "Sometimes people just want answers to questions, but I think a lot is potentially lost. There is something to be said for having a conversation rather than just answering what the email asks of you."

Compounding the problem, email has become so pervasive that we spend a huge amount of time simply staying on top of the messages.

"Why not sit down on the phone, in person or over Skype?" Simon asked. "I think that's tough to do because we're trying to minimize our email inboxes. We think, 'I can't talk to this guy for too long because I have to keep on top of my email.'"

It's easy to see the flaw in that kind of thinking, yet it's hard to realize we've fallen into that very pattern of thought.

"Email is a communication tool like anything else," said Skip Weisman, a leadership and workplace communication consultant and coach. "But most people don't take the time to assess how they use that tool."

He continued: "My main question for people is, 'Are you communicating consciously, or are you just in reaction mode all the time?' It doesn't take a lot of extra time — 15 or 30 seconds — to be a little more conscious of how we're communicating. In most cases, we're just firing off an email thinking we're going to get it off our desks, but then we get a response and we have to send another and on and on. I wish I had a pill I could give you so you know when it's appropriate to use email and when it's better to go for a face-to-face conversation. But there is no perfect situation. You just have to be more conscious of the relationship."

Ah, being conscious. That can be a tall order when we're being pulled in 15 different directions. But it's awfully important to devote a tiny amount of time — to just pause briefly — and think before defaulting to email.

Simon recommends asking these questions:

—What's the goal of the communication?

—Who's your audience?

—What's the best mode to communicate your message?

That's certainly not a daunting checklist.

Maybe you've had trouble before with the person you're about to email because he or she often misconstrues your tone. Email is devoid of context — perhaps a face-to-face chat is better.

Are you going back and forth with someone via email and not managing to understand each other? Consider picking up the phone. (Simon has a strict three-email maximum.)

Weisman said: "You really have to ask yourself, 'What's my relationship with the person I'm sending this to? Am I just sending an email because I don't want to have the conversation face-to-face? What's the cost of hiding behind the email?'"

A phrase Simon uses in his book is, "How we're working isn't working." I think he's right.

Email is a wonderfully useful business tool that we have grabbed hold of and dragged to its logical extreme. It might help to dial it back a bit and remember the way we, as humans, are meant to communicate — with body language, expression and, above all, voice.



Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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