By Suzanne Oliver
When it comes to collaborating with colleagues these days,
choosing the right communication tool can be as important as the
Send an email, and you might not get a timely reply. Post a
question in Slack, and you might miss information from a colleague
who never checks your team channel. Schedule a videoconference when
a phone call would have sufficed, and you'll annoy everyone who's
exhausted by living life online.
How do you assess the relative strengths of your communication
options, the preferences of colleagues and your own digital
Some people are quicker than others to figure out how to
leverage the features of the new technologies in platforms such as
Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, Slack, Basecamp and Zoom --
which can cause friction with co-workers who are slower to
"We are expecting people to learn etiquette at breakneck speeds
and then getting frustrated with each other because we don't know
how we ought to be doing it," says Jeffrey Hall, professor of
communication studies at the University of Kansas.
We asked some experts about the strengths and weaknesses of the
most common communication tools -- and the best practices to
Even in this age with a proliferation of tools, the old standby
has a few big advantages. For one thing, emails almost always get
saved and are easy to search, which makes them a good way to send
things that need to be referenced quickly.
"If you are sending out something that is for information only,
you still can't beat email," says Brian Hanssen, clinical assistant
professor of management communication at the New York University
Stern School of Business.
Likewise, it is easy to attach a file to a message, making it a
good choice for distributing documents or other material. "If I
have a new employee guide, I am going to email it," says Andrew
Meadows, senior vice president of human resources at Ubiquity
Retirement + Savings, which has been operating remotely and using
digital collaboration tools for 10 years.
In addition, for contacting someone outside of your own
organization, email is still the preferred method. It is ubiquitous
and has norms that mimic a business letter.
"In an email, you can express yourself in a way that feels
established," says Bilal Baloch, co-founder of GlobalWonks, a
service that links clients with experts, and a visiting scholar at
the University of Pennsylvania.
Email, though, isn't great when you're trying to work in concert
with a group. If Mr. Meadows was looking for feedback on a
document, he says, he would be more likely to post that document in
the project-management tool Basecamp, where co-workers could make
"If you are trying to collaborate or come to a consensus in a
group, email is a poor choice," says Mr. Hanssen. It is difficult
to keep track of the thread of information and the latest versions
of documents, and if someone doesn't "reply all," the whole
communication chain breaks down.
In some cases, it is also important to use email in conjunction
with other tools, because messages can get lost in a crowded
Mr. Baloch and his team, for instance, use not only email but
also LinkedIn messages and old-fashioned phone calls for making
external business connections. "The recipient is probably receiving
many, many emails, so we try to triangulate through multiple
mediums," he says.
Sending messages in applications like Microsoft Teams and Slack
is good for asking quick questions, getting task updates and
accessing shared knowledge and files by sending people links. It is
also less formal than email, so you don't have to spend time
writing extended greetings or goodbyes in your notes.
But there are lots of things to bear in mind before you start
First, channel messages should be short and easy to skim. Direct
messaging isn't a good place for long conversations, discussing
nuanced topics, making time-consuming requests or giving negative
feedback. These types of communications need the richer
communication environments that telephone and videoconference
Also bear in mind that messaging can be more disruptive than
email, because people assume that an answer is needed quickly. "If
you are going to interrupt what I am doing with a direct message,
it should be important," says David Johnson, principal analyst at
Forrester Research Inc. "If it can wait overnight or even a few
hours, email is probably fine."
Once you decide that your communication is appropriate for
messaging, it is important to identify your audience. Microsoft
Teams and Slack enable you to target your message by recipient
name, channel topic and user groups.
Project-related information that is relevant to more than a few
people is best shared in dedicated channels instead of sending all
of them a direct message. Before you post, check the channel to
make sure it is still active and that your message fits the channel
subject. If you're writing a response to a previous message, use a
thread to separate the discussion, which makes it easier to follow
and keeps the channel uncluttered.
You can use tags to help you reach the right people -- such as
@JaneSmith -- while interrupting the fewest with unnecessary
notifications. If you need an immediate response to a general
question, use a tag -- @here on Slack, for example -- to alert
anyone on that channel who is currently signed in.
Finally, remember that channel communication is more like a
conversation than a file cabinet. It keeps moving, and it has an
ending -- messages can get lost in a long, fast-moving discussion,
and your conversations are likely erased by your company after a
"Instant messaging goes away," says Mr. Johnson.
To that end, don't rely on a channel as your sole access point
for important documents. It can be difficult to find them again or
to access them from mobile or remote devices.
Since the pandemic, many people have discovered the upside of
videoconferencing: It lets you have deeper conversations,
collaborate in small groups and make presentations to larger
"The richer and more nuanced the conversation needs to be, the
more case there is for making a video call," says Mr. Johnson of
Forrester. When delivering really good news or really bad news, the
inflection and facial expressions conveyed in video can enhance the
Videoconferencing is also a good tool for conveying and
discussing complicated information, and it is much easier to take
turns on a videoconference than it is on a telephone conference
call. While people often talk over each other due to digital lags
on a videoconference, it is simpler to figure out who's talking and
to signal that you want to talk.
But there are definite limitations to the medium. When you add a
chat and a video gallery of participants, there is a lot of
stimuli, and an extended video meeting can be fatiguing.
And, just like with in-person meetings, the size of the group
matters. Don't pack them in virtually just because you can. "Most
meetings should be a minimum of three to four, a maximum of
somewhere between seven and 12," says Mr. Hanssen.
Videoconferencing can work with a larger group, though, if you
have a small number of presenters and then allow questions from the
audience. It helps to have a moderator who, for instance, picks
questions out of the chat and spells out specific times that he or
she will pose them to the speaker. (And, unlike in a smaller
gathering, participants should turn off their cameras, perhaps
after a brief time for socializing, to cut down on the
There are times when it is best to put the screen aside and get
back to the very basics.
Unlike a videoconference, where looks can matter, you don't have
to make sure your appearance and workspace are camera ready --
which means a less demanding experience for participants.
The telephone is also still best for urgent matters that are too
complicated for messaging or email. It is also preferred for
sensitive conversations that you may not want recorded in text on
company platforms. Knowing your company's policies regarding
information retention and privacy will help you decide.
"In general, it is probably safer to have sensitive discussions
over a confidential telephone call," says Mr. Johnson.
Ms. Oliver is a writer in New York. She can be reached at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 08, 2021 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.