By Suzanne Oliver 

When it comes to collaborating with colleagues these days, choosing the right communication tool can be as important as the communication itself.

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 skills?

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 adapt.

"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 use.

Email

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 comments.

"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 inbox.

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.

Direct message

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 typing.

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 offer.

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 certain period.

"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.

Videoconference

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 ones.

"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 communication.

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 stimuli.)

Telephone

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 reports@wsj.com.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 08, 2021 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

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