The Right Medium For The Message

One of the challenges we face in modern work is the sheer number of options we have for communicating with one another. This challenge is compounded by the fact that most workplaces haven’t defined agreements or best practices for how to leverage the various digital channels we have at our disposal. Microsoft found that employees are being distracted every 40 seconds, which has a big impact on your productivity and mental and health. One of the easiest ways to begin tackling this problem is by learning how to choose the right medium of communication. In this article, I’ll outline a framework for how to communicate more efficiently. The side effect of taking the approach I’ve laid out below is that you’ll feel more connected to the folks you work with and might even enjoy your work more!

In so many organizations today, instant messaging tools like Slack have taken over 90% of communications. The result is an ever-increasing level of noise, distraction, and stress in our organizations. Today we’ll look at when instant messaging makes sense and how to leverage it most effectively, and when to consider a more appropriate medium. 

There are two basic categories of communications:

  • Asynchronous, meaning conversations not happening at the same time on each side. Email, instant messaging tools like Slack, and PM tools like Asana or Trello fall into this category.
  • Synchronous, meaning conversations that happen in real-time. Phone calls, video calls, or meeting in-person are examples of this. 

It’s worth noting that instant messaging is often thought of as a synchronous communication because of how often we’re chatting in real-time with one another. That’s the problem. If people are constantly interrupting one another to initiate real-time text chats, no one gets anything done. 

Let’s jump in!

Office Communications Channel Matrix

The simplest way to think about this is to imagine various types of communication on a matrix. The Y-axis represents the importance or urgency of a communication issue. The X-axis represents the complexity or sensitivity of the issue. 

Before we jump into each of the communication channels, note that as you move up and to the right of the chart above, the quality of communication increases. There is a richness and clarity that is possible in-person or via video that simply isn’t possible in writing. This is one of the reasons why choosing the right medium for the message is so important. 

Instant Messaging — Effective for simple, short communications of lower importance and very low complexity.

“Hey did you finish that doc – could you send it over?” is a good example of when to use instant messaging. It’s an easy question to respond to without contemplation and research. While it’s likely somewhat time-sensitive to the person asking, it’s not an “urgent matter”. If you need that document for a client presentation in an hour, that would be a more urgent matter better suited to quick a phone call. This might seem counterintuitive to the notion of instant messaging being about “instant” communication. If you expect tools like Slack to provide instant communication, you are expecting people to monitor these channels like they’re an emergency hotline. This isn’t sustainable or productive for anyone as it creates an always-on mentality. It means people are constantly being interrupted with no idea if the message is actually urgent or important.  

Ideally you can discuss this with your colleagues and collectively agree to stop expecting one another to respond instantly to instant messaging. It sounds contradictory but this single shift can make a dramatic difference in the level of focus you can achieve. It also lowers stress levels for everyone involved. 

Instant Messaging also isn’t well suited for complex communications that require consideration before a response because tools like Slack aren’t designed to manage, sort, prioritize, or filter messages. It’s not optimized to leave messages “unread” (though it’s possible). If you’ve sent someone a message they need to think about before responding, it’s too easy for them to forget about.

Reserve instant messaging for communications that can be consumed and responded to quickly. It should be assumed that the person will read the message once and not need to reference it again. 

Finally, avoid giving critical feedback, bad news, or other sensitive communications via instant message. Providing news like this to your team or colleagues via instant message is a surefire way to erode trust and increase anxiety amongst your team. It’s not productive or respectful to throw a curveball at someone over instant messaging. You have no idea when they’re going to read the message, and it’s not a suitable medium for the length of message that’s required to deliver delicate news. 

Email — Effective for low to mid-level complexity and importance. 

As soon as a Slack message gets longer than a few sentences, you should consider whether it would be better suited for an email. If what you’re trying to describe takes a paragraph or more, it likely requires more consideration on the other end as well. This is when email becomes a more suitable channel. Email allows someone to organize their messages, put them in folders, star them, and leave them unread until they’ve processed the communication. If you’re asking someone a question that requires some thought, research, or reflection before answering — email them. 

Similar to instant messaging, email isn’t great for very urgent matters, or matters of very high complexity or sensitivity. If your team is constantly expecting urgent responses via email, it raises the stress level of the entire team and forces them to monitor their email 24/7.

However, email is better suited than instant messaging for complex and important information due to the fact that you can elaborate in a longer format, include attachments and links, and that the person on the other end can more easily keep track of the message. 

To make email truly effective consider the following each time before you press send: 

  • Have I included the necessary context for the person to respond effectively? 
  • Have I been clear about what I’m looking for and by when?
  • Did I spell-check and review the email for legibility?
  • Have I CC’d/BCC’d the right people? Could I remove anyone to save their inbox without leaving relevant parties out of the loop? 

One other tip for saving lots of back and forth is to use a tool like Calendly.com for finding times for meetings. It allows someone to click a link and book a time instantly, and sends out the invite for you. It’s honestly a huge timesaver for both ends. 

Phone — Great for more complex, important, and urgent conversations

In all of my companies, we have a rule, if something is urgent, pick up the phone and call. We have a collective agreement that we are not expected to monitor our instant messaging platforms or email as if it’s a crisis line. (We also configure our phones to be in Do Not Disturb when we’re focused, except for phone calls.) 

Besides urgent matters, phone calls are great to figure out issues that are too complex for email. If I’m writing an email and it gets to four or five paragraphs, or if I’m in the third round of back and forth with someone without resolving an issue, I always ask myself if it’s time to pick up the phone. It’s amazing how many emails can be avoided by a single phone call. 

Phone calls are also great because the richness and fidelity of the communication goes way up. You can hear one another’s voice. There is less ambiguity because you can hear the person’s inflections and tone. You’re able to understand one another better and more efficiently. A long pause says a thousand words. You can hear excitement, care, frustration, or anger in the person’s voice even if they might respond with the same words for all of these sentiments. This is why complex and/or sensitive issues are best dealt with when you can hear each other’s voice. 

Video — Seeing someone’s face allows for a deeper connection.

As complexity and sensitivity goes up, the ability to see one another as you’re talking can be really valuable. Video is great if you have to give someone bad news, or give critical feedback. It’s also nice to connect face-to-face with your colleagues at least some of the time if you’re working fully remotely. 

There is a counter argument here. When you add a visual component, you’re activating the visual cortex of the brain. It can be a more confronting medium, even more than being in the same room as someone (where there is much more intangible, unspoken communication happening with body language, pheromones, etc.) Video can sometimes cause a person to be more defensive than on a phone call, which might work against you both if you need to have a hard conversation. You might consider the person you’re talking to and make a decision, or even ask them if they prefer one medium over the other.

That said, in general, I prefer video for the most sensitive conversations if I can’t be in person with someone. There is something about looking them in the eye and saying the thing that feels most respectful. 

In-Person — There is a level of connection that happens in-person that cannot be reproduced virtually.

It’s hard to write this while much of the world is locked down, but there really is no replacement for being in-person with someone. Much of communication and understanding between people happens subconsciously, or non-verbally. Things like body language help you interpret what a person is saying at a much deeper level. 

While things are the way they are, we can still get outside for walks with others, which is a great way to communicate and get some fresh air at the same time. Walking and talking is a lot less confrontational because you’re not facing one another and you’re moving so there is a physical outlet for some of the energy. Men in particular respond well to walking conversations. The movement also helps with creativity and brain function. 

For now, we might not be able to take advantage of this medium easily, but keep it in mind for when we can safely spend time with others. 

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By keeping this matrix in mind when you’re communicating, you’ll save time, lower stress, and find more connection with the people you work with. Share this with your colleagues! Have a conversation about these ideas. The most effective way to leverage this information is to create agreements with the folks you work closest with. We host workshops to facilitate that conversation amongst teams if you’re interested. 

If you’d like to take these ideas to the next level, check out our Foundations Program or book us for a team webinar or workshop.  

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