Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council January 29, 2018.
Not long ago, I made a decision about a key benefits program for my company. I was excited about it; I felt like I was making a good call for the whole team. That Friday afternoon, pumped up, I sent out a Slack message to everyone announcing the big news. I was surprised when not a single person responded to it.
A few days later, I asked one of my employees about it. “Why didn’t anybody respond?”
She laughed and told me, “Dean, it was a lot to take in right before the weekend. And it wasn’t really an announcement that works well on Slack — you would have been better off sending an email.”
It’s a mistake almost everyone has made at one time or another: sending an instant message when an email would better convey the information or sending an email instead of communicating face to face. We’re all multitasking and trying to check off items on our to-do list, but spending 30 seconds evaluating a few factors will help you avoid sending the wrong message or irritating the person you are communicating with.
How complex is the information you are conveying? Anything that requires more than a few words to explain or that contains multiple layers of information should be sent as an email. Simpler requests or notes might be better suited to the casual conversations over instant message.
How quickly do you need a response — or how invasive are you willing to be? Slack, texting or other instant messaging tools are made for quick-fire, rapid-response situations. Email is more likely to sit in an inbox for a few hours. Of course, these days, an unscheduled phone call signals its own kind of urgency. Evaluate whether you need to grab someone’s attention right away and potentially interrupt them in the midst of a task or meeting or if it can wait for a more opportune time.
How sensitive is the subject? If you need to communicate something that will impact someone’s day-to-day or might be met with resistance, consider doing it face to face or at least over the phone. This also shows respect for your audience.
How important is tone? Nuances are often lost with the written word. Emoticons can ease some of this loss of effect but aren’t always appropriate for an office. If you have any doubt that you can convey the right tone in writing, do it over the phone or in person.
When are you communicating? Is it business hours, early morning or evening or over the weekend? This is where setting expectations for your team is key. Do you want your team to be on-call at all times? If that’s your business environment, perhaps texting or instant messaging at all hours is OK (whether this is healthy or good for business in the long-term is another discussion). But for most, instant messaging should be saved for business hours.
What about email? Again, it’s best to set expectations ahead of time. I might send an email over the weekend because I’ve found a few hours to knock out my to-do list, but I don’t expect my team to be checking in or responding to emails until the work week begins. Other managers want their team to respond to requests in off-hours, but without the house-on-fire urgency of texting or instant messaging. With expectations in place, team members can then take responsibility for how they handle email: constantly checking or setting aside an hour or two to deal with work requests.
When and how we communicate sends its own message: how quickly we need a response, how sensitive the topic might be, how much we’ve thought about our audience and their reception of the material. By putting a few extra seconds into considering the tool and the timing, we can increase our odds of communicating successfully.