There are a ton of communications tools out there. The problem is that there is a ton of communications tools out there. It’s a problem because people may monitor some communication channels while ignoring others. Consequently, important messages could get missed or delayed.
For us, it is important to use the right tool at the right time for the right thing. Equally important, everybody needs to be aligned know which tools to use and which to monitor. It is important to have a communications protocol that everybody understands so there is consistency and mutual expectations.
Types of communication tools for work:
- Messaging Apps
There is corporate email and personal email. Some people mix the two, which is not always good or the right thing to do. For one, corporate email systems often have an extra layer of security to filter out malicious people and software. If you use your personal email account for work, it is possible that this could slip through the cracks. Also, it may be important to have official records and archives of email, which can’t happen if employees bypass the corporate email system and use their personal accounts.
Email is not necessarily appropriate for every type of communication or message. Email lacks the non-verbal queues and facial signals to let people know if you are serious or joking. Not everybody likes to read long email messages or has the time or patience. On the other hand, sometimes an email is overkill for something that is very short and direct. Moreover, with so much email spam and the simple high volume of email we tend to receive, important email messages are sometimes missed or delayed. In cases like this, other methods of communication might be more effective.
When should email NOT be used?
If an email thread is likely to go back and forth more than half a dozen times, then email is probably not the right channel. If there is potential for people to misunderstand your the intent of your message due to lack of body language and context, then email is probably not the right channel. If it takes more than 5-10 minutes for the average person to read your email, then it’s probably not the right communications vehicle.
When should email be used?
I find that email is best for non-conversational messaging and official notifications. If you want to write a letter wishing people a happy holiday, or announcing a new policy, or accompanying an attached document, then email is probably the appropriate tool to use.
Messaging Apps (like Slack)
Also known as instant messaging, messaging apps are available in a variety of forms by a variety of vendors including SMS messaging on your phone, WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, Viber, Google Hangouts, AIM and Skype. Slack seems to be the predominant messaging platform for business. We have found Slack to be the right tool for the following instances and applications:
- When you have a one-liner message and email is overkill
- When your message is likely to be conversational and interactive
- When you want to provide a quick update
- When you want to maintain a long-term dialogue string
- When you want to share a stupid joke or picture
- When your message is temporal and doesn’t need to be archived
When should you not use Slack and other types of messaging apps?
- When it takes more than about sixty (60) seconds to read your message
- When your you need a permanent record or archive of you message
One thing that I do like about Slack is the ability to edit and delete something you have said. Sometimes, our communications goes too far and we wish we could have said it another way or taken it back. Or, maybe we want to say it, but don’t necessarily want it to linger permanently. Slack, and some other messaging tools, allows you to edit and delete what you wrote.
Video (video conferencing)
Video chats and apps include Zoom, GoToMeeting, Join.me, WebEx, WhatsApp, Google Hangout are really useful when:
- You can explain it faster “in person” than by email or Slack
- You want to develop a personal connection
- You are “meeting” somebody for the first time
- Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions are important
- You’ve gone back and forth too many times on email or Slack
- You want to record a conversation so you can play it back
- You want to share screens, demonstrate something, or tutor somebody
- You work remotely and need to connect on a more personal level
- You have something really sensitive or important to say or address
The problem with video conferencing includes some of the following:
- It requires synchronization – everybody has to be available at the same time
- It requires pretty high bandwidth and a reliable, fast, Internet connection
- It requires a video camera, not everybody has one on their computer
- It requires good lighting, otherwise you look like you are in witness protection
- It requires good audio, a good mic and sometimes echo/soundproofing
- Sometimes, it is unprofessional if you are working from home in your pajamas
- It is not necessarily permanent or official, it’s not a good lasting archive
Telephone is a lot like video conferencing but without the video. It helps add some “body language” and “facial expression” via tone of voice. Particularly when you detect that somebody misunderstood your email or text message, a quick phone call can clear up the confusion and misunderstanding. Telephone calls happen in real time, they are typically more conversational and interactive. The problems with phoning are:
- Sometimes, it is difficult to understand people with a strong, foreign, accent
- Some people are visual and need to see something to understand
- It is difficult to sync up when you are on different time zones
- Calls require coordination and they can be disruptive and intrusive
- Particularly with mobile, sometimes people don’t have good reception
- It is temporal in nature, not permanent without transcripts
- Not good for people with hearing difficulties
Sometimes, a face-to-face conversation makes all the difference in the world for sensitive topics, important conversations, relationship building, and clearing up misunderstandings. We are based in the Washington DC metro area and one of the reasons why we focus exclusively on DC clients is so we can have that face-to-face if and when necessary.
Before we submit a proposal for a web application or website services, we like to meet face-to-face with prospective clients, get to know who they are, understand their needs, practice empathy, help define their problems, help develop solutions, and ensure that we can work together in the future. We don’t want to find out after a contract has been accepted that we are not a good personality match for our clients. A face-to-face helps both us and our prospective clients determine if we are a good fit for each other.
Once we win a contract, we believe it is important to get all the stakeholders in the same room for a period of time to ensure alignment. We like to cater the kick-off meeting so there is time to ask questions, get answers, and develop a working rapport. That initial kick-off, when we build our inception deck, creates the foundation for a great project and long-term working relationship.
Of course, the problems with face-to-face can be:
- It might take longer to get to a meeting place than the actual meeting
- It might not be worth the time and expense to meet in person
- It requires a great deal of synchronization: time, place, etc.
Of course, lets not forget the role of paper communication. When it comes to official documents, paper comes across as more legitimate, official, and permanent (even though paper can be destroyed, shredded, burned, etc.). Sometimes, the feel of high quality paper and a hand-written letter can be quite moving – like the hand-written notes U.S. Presidents often leave for their successor.
Communications tools and technology will likely continue to evolve. Instant messaging has only been around since the 1990s. Before that, we used pagers. Pagers have since become mostly obsolete. Videoconferencing has only become commonplace since high-speed broadband Internet. Could be that a new communications channel is underway right now and the ones we have talked about will also go the way of the telegraph machine, facsimile, and pager.