Admittedly, direct communication suffers in times of home office. The stress of everyday life, the daily pressure of deadlines, and the fast-moving nature of information also means that you can’t wait to reach your colleague, co-worker, or supervisor in person. So, what do you do? You send a quick email. But stop! This can be disastrous because not every piece of information is suitable to quickly shoot out via email.

There are some things that might be able to wait or cannot be communicated through an email. Unfortunately, this is exactly the way of working predominantly used by digital natives and older workers who are used to getting things done immediately. In the past, we were happy to just walk down the hallway to a colleague. Now, we simply write an email.

No, this is not about data protection and data security when sending emails, or about encryption and cryptography. This is about communication and making sure that the email’s contents reach the recipient as intended: informative, factual, and unagitated. However, depending on the message you want to quickly get across, the medium of email can be the wrong strategy, which is why you can end up in a lot of trouble.

Let’s take a look at Simone K.’s home office. She is a backend developer for a large online retailer. Currently, like so many others, she works almost exclusively from her home office. Team communication takes place through web meetings, chats, and emails. In the weekly discussion, the whole team sits together as individuals in front of their cameras, and listens calmly to new information the supervisor announces regarding current project information. Sometimes things get heated because people don’t always agree. But in the group, through cameras and microphones, people always treat each other with respect.

Today, Simone K. is presenting changes in the script that she received from Product Marketing. For another interface in the team, this also means changes need to be incorporated. Information is shared and recorded in the shared working document directly in the web conference, and is then filed away. The meeting proceeds without any unusual events. However, the supervisor is very quiet today. Simone assumes this is due to current stress. The team agrees upon a schedule for when the changes will be incorporated and released for distribution. The meeting concludes with a clear consensus and Simone ends the call, only to jump into the next conference call a minute later. That’s how it goes until 2 p.m. Then, Simone briefly logs out to take the dog for a walk and enjoy a sandwich in the fresh air. At 2:45 p.m., she’s back online and happy to see that her missed call list is clear. So she can get to work by 4, without having to call back several colleagues first. At 4, she dials into the next meeting. Here, she’s only a listener with no active part. In passing, a colleague knocks on her door over Messenger with a technical question. She exchanges ideas with him via chat. After all, it’s multitasking. Simone turns her attention back to the online presentation for her current web meeting. An email from her supervisor pops up at the bottom right. The subject is “Team”. This piques her curiosity, so she clicks on the message to read the email (in passing). After the third line, her breath stops. She notices a mixture of incomprehension, anger, and frustration rising inside of her. Her only thought is, “Excuse me?”

In the email, her supervisor writes to the entire team that he’s been thinking about how to restructure tasks within the team. In this morning’s presentation, he became aware that some of Simone and her colleague Armin’s tasks will be combined from now on. Simone will have to hand over part of her work to Armin and take over a new project instead. At the moment, everyone is under a lot of time pressure and it’s guaranteed that the projects can still be finished.

“Management by email” is definitely a management fail

Ok. We are done here. Simone leaves the online meeting because she can’t follow the topic right now anyway. Many questions about the e-mail pop into her head:

  • Why didn’t her boss say anything about this in the meeting this morning?
  • What makes him think that Simone and Armin in particular should combine their tasks? What about their other colleagues? Is the boss dissatisfied with their work? Why didn’t he coordinate this personally with Simone and Armin beforehand?

Simone checks if Armin is still online. He isn’t. She tries to call him, but can’t reach him. She forwards the boss’ email to him and adds, “Give me a call about this as soon as it’s good for you.” Armin gets in touch with her the next morning. He is just as upset about the email as Simone was, and just as surprised too, especially since he only read the message this morning. Both decide to address their boss directly and invite him to a web conference. The appointment arrives two days later, because their boss spontaneously took some time off.

During the conversation two days later, their boss explains that he actually wanted to do both colleagues a favor. In their last annual appraisal interview, they both mentioned that they sometimes felt that processes were not efficient and they’d like to do something different and take on new projects, instead of working through the same thing over and over again.

Good intentions with the wrong strategy and a bad outcome

Well-intentioned, but not well done. Above all, it was not communicated properly. The excuse that there was simply not enough time to have a detailed conversation with both of them in advance isn’t useful. After all, everyone is constantly in online meetings and in the home office, so unfortunately, you don’t spontaneously see each other during lunch. The fact is that in the end, Simone, Armin, and their other colleagues in the team feel knocked over by the email. Important information that has corresponding impacts must ALWAYS be delivered in person or at least over the phone, even if it’s time-consuming. As a manager, you must invest this time and set priorities when your schedule is overrun.

By the way, there are many more “nice” examples of topics where you CANNOT replace a personal conversation.

Always discuss in person

  • Target agreements, annual targets, and bonus payments associated with them
  • Transfers, either in terms of content, a new role, or spatially to a different location or even just a different office
  • Termination
  • Probationary period feedback, no matter how good it may be—but this is often completely forgotten anyway
  • Accusations or even just pointing out mistakes

As a manager, you always have to consider which medium is correct for which information, and not only in times of excessive home office. That sounds banal, but unfortunately, it’s done incorrectly every day. Ultimately, it often leads to employees becoming frustrated and not feeling sufficiently valued. And when frustration levels rise, it can even drive some employees to change jobs.

Communication as the basis of cooperation

In addition to competency and commitment, communication is the basis of cooperation. But in the heat of the moment, we often forget that. We like choosing the most comfortable and fastest way to communicate something. An email is always directly addressed to one or more recipients, but it still seems very impersonal. With the daily flood of emails, you should always think about if every email truly makes sense. You should make sure—out of respect and above all, out of conviction—that the content and message really reaches the recipient and is understood and comprehensible.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, people tend to send information quickly via email, even if they’ve previously tried to reach someone personally or by phone. So they’ve basically already approached it correctly, but were not successful.

Our daily professional lives demand that we get things done, clear our desks, and still, there are a thousand more tasks waiting for us to do. So we quickly type up a piece of information into an email and internally put a checkmark next to it. This is despite the fact that we cannot even be sure if our message will be read by the recipient at all (either promptly or ever). This message, like everyone else, will likely get lost in a flood of emails.

Think twice before you submit an email

Any email that you doubt that contents are not purely factual and may have an emotional response should not be sent. You should choose a direct path of communication instead.

If an important issue is burning and a phone call or face-to-face meeting cannot happen, then you should send an email that simply says: “Please call me sometime, I want to talk to you about…” Or better yet, organize a mutual appointment to discuss the topic and invite people online.

Presenting someone with an irreversible decision over email or conveying information that raises questions, contains accusations, or is an emotional topic is a lot like quitting your job or breaking up with your partner over WhatsApp.

Even if it feels easier to take care of important tasks by email, there are many things that aren’t so easy to push away. Everyone—especially supervisors—should always ask themselves if they’ve picked the correct communication channel for the corresponding message. When in doubt, pick up the phone and persistently push for a personal conversation. Admittedly, this is challenging during times of coronavirus. But it’s worth it.

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