Excessive workplace email undermines productivity and team spirit

The place had become silent as a tomb

Lack of face-to-face communication between workers is a growing problem

I recently spoke with the co-owner/CEO of an organization with 75 employees, all located on the same floor in a contiguous area. He commented that the place had become silent as a tomb, save for the keyboard tapping noises–with employees communicating exclusively by email even to their next-door neighbors. He commented that a few years ago they would just converse over cubicle walls or walk across the room to speak directly with coworkers. Phone calls were down, as well. In other words, his employees might as well have been living in different parts of the country without the benefit of Skype. He was concerned that team collaboration, spirit and overall productivity were suffering as a result.

If this describes your work environment, you have a problem. While email is great for routine communication e.g., meeting reminders, sending reference documents, etc., it provides no ‘depth perception,’ analogous to a pilot flying blind.

In a recent study measuring outcomes for businesses with high levels of overreliance on digital communication within the workplace around the world, the following critical indices of success had plummeted–

  • Innovation by over 90%+
  • Cooperative/helping behaviors by 80%+
  • Mutual trust by 80%+
  • Job responsibility and work goal clarity by 75%
  • Project success rates by 50%+
  • Worker commitment and job satisfaction by 50%+

Effective workplace communication

Face-to-face contact is still the best management and team option for dealing with important issues. This is because it provides immediate two-way dialogue with the ability to read facial expression and body language (research shows that the latter two elements are more impactful than what is said). Building the kind of trust and passion required for innovation and productivity is best achieved this ‘old fashioned’ way. Bottom line: employees need a sense of intimacy (with a similar dynamic to family and friendship networks).

Skype and equivalent services rank a solid second, with telephonic communication also superior to email as a platform for effectively working through challenges and resolving problems. Why? With telephonic communication, you have a 2+-way real time connection. Of course, when a person’s voice reflects anger or disdain, big problems can result–so take a few minutes to make sure you’re in a balanced, calm mood before making a difficult phone call.

Emails post additional risks

Not only is email communication less effective than the three options described above, it also more requires time and effort than most people are willing to invest. Especially problematic: emailed requests for follow up action that result in no response/lack of follow through or confused, even hostile reactions.

This is most likely to happen when–

  • the reader finds your message ambiguous or too complex;
  • you don’t state your expectations clearly; and/or
  • the reader is in a negative, defensive mood and misinterprets your intent.

Next, I’ll suggest some easily implemented management strategies for improving the quality of workplace communication.

It is among the most powerful under-the-radar social changes of the 21st century

Overreliance on digital communication within the work environment not only undermines collaboration and innovation, but one’s basic sense of personal worth. It is among the most powerful under-the-radar social changes of the 21st century. If the impact of this shift was at first subliminal, the effects are now clear.

Since the 19th century, social research has consistently confirmed the critical importance of social support/in person interaction across a broad range of physical and mental health variables. It’s not surprising, then, that 21st century research shows that those who spend the most time on social media, i.e., interacting with people they will never meet in the flesh, experience negative outcomes like depression and a sense of social isolation.

You might ask, “But, hasn’t screen-based communication in some ways increased meaningful interpersonal contact?” For close friends and family, perhaps. However, as explained earlier, too much screen-based communication undermines workplace collaboration and productivity. Case in point: while email is a useful management tool for disseminating management edicts and baseline expectations, it does not nurture innovation or team spirit.

Management strategies for meeting this challenge head-on

  • Develop and deliver in-house training to highlight the problem and provide remedies; then monitor employee behavior to ensure they stay on track.
  • Reinforce effective strategies on your website, your intranet and other in-house venues.
  • Consistently encourage people to consider all options, i.e., discernment about what kinds of messages work best for different purposes and by what means they are best delivered.
  • Emphasize that before sending a written message, employees need to carefully consider what they want the receiver to do after they receive it.
  • If requesting detailed information, it’s by far better to get that information in person or by phone.
  • When communicating negative feedback, face-to-face or telephonic communication creates both better short and long-term outcomes.
  • If you’re a manager, you must model these behaviors to validate and reinforce desired changes. Otherwise, employees will quickly revert to their old ways.
  • Finally, create and periodically examine baseline productivity and innovation metrics to ensure progress.