Strategies: Set guidelines for when e-mail is appropriate

by Tonya Layman – Contributing Writer / Strategies / Atlanta Business Chronicle

It wasn’t that long ago that people knew what life without e-mail was like.

Today, e-mail is the No. 1 form of communication in business, and some say htat is not necessarily a good thing.

Local communication experts say the ability to conduct face-to-face or telephone communication has deteriorated and almost become a lost art.

A survey developed by OfficeTeam, a division of Menlo Park, Calif,-based Robert Half International Inc., demonstrates how people have shifted the way they communicate over the past five years.

The survey states that only 13 percent of managers polled use the telephone as their primary means of communication, down 48 percent from five years ago.

Fourteen percent rely on face-to-face meetings, compared with 24 percent five years ago.

E-mail has been the most common form of dialogue at work for the past five years, and is used by 71 percent of respondents compared with 27 percent five years ago.

Stacy Marshall, Robert Half International regional vice president, said e-mail is not appropriate in every situation. E-mail is perfect for one-way communication; quick, back-and-forth discussion; to have a written record of decisions and avoid future confusion; or to forward information to a large, dispersed group of colleagues.

“E-mail is certainly dominating our communication, but there are many times e-mail is not appropriate,” she said. “I see e-mail as an additional form of communication. I was not surprised to see the increase in e-mail usage in our study. I was more surprised by the decrease of in-person communication because I don’t think it replaces an in-person meeting.

Pick up the telephone to explain a subject in greater detail or debate a topic; to consult with or come to a decision among a group of dispersed workeres; allow colleagues to share ideas and feedback with the benefit of vocal inflections and provide a forum to ask questions about the views.

Face-to-face meetings are necessary to relay sensitive or confidential information, explain complicated or controversial issues that involve a discussion or debate, or to share ideas with the benefit of vocal inflections, facial expressions and body language.

“In any situation where there is potential for miscommunication, it is critical to use face-to-face communication,” Marshall said. “E-mail has a great purpose, but we all survived before e-mail.

Scott Weiss, president and chief executive officer of Speakeasy Inc., an Atlanta-based communication development firm, said it is essential for business leaders to decide when e-mail is appropriate„and when it is not.

For example, management should make it clear that it is not acceptable to terminate an employee via em-mail or voicemail.

“We believe companies have to be responsible to create effective communication cultures, “he said. “Unfortunately most don’t do it and it is a free-for-all and whatever happens, happens. This causes dysfunctional communication cultures.”

Weiss said managers also need to keep in mind that e-mail leaves a paper trail, and there is a possibility that the information may reach the wrong set of eyes.

Many companies have adopted the attitude that e-mail communication is better because it is faster than face-to-face meetings.

However, Weiss said, studies show that meetings lead to better results, not worse.

“A lot of productivity is lost in the e-mail jungle,” he said. “People have gotten so consumed with e-mail they have forgotten about getting up and walking down the hall to talk with a colleague. In many cases that is faster than writing an e-mail, proofreading it and sending it.”

Janet Murray, professor and director of the graduate program in digital media at Georgia Tech, said it is still an exciting time as e-mail gains popularity.

“It is a wonderful moment in history to have a new medium of communication come into our hands. But it is stil in the development stage,” she said.

Murray said businesses should weigh the pros and cons of using e-mail.

“One of the main things it has done is it has made people available across the hierarchy of power, so there is a lot more direct communication than there would be in a more formalized communication system,” she said. “But it has raised the problem f the ease in which information moves around.”

The social dynamics change when you can do things instantaneously by electronic means, she added.

“A lot of things we do are shaped by the media in which we do them,” Murray said. “You have to recognize you are using a new medium, and rethink your procedures.”