Gone are the days of the old-fashioned paper-based memo. Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate the speed and global reach that email provides with a click of the “send” button, but I fear we have lost something with the complete transition to this less tangible communication medium. If the major goals of communication in an organizational setting are to share information, influence others and take action, all of which are highly relevant to an organization’s effectiveness, then we should optimize every opportunity to correspond with one another.
Email started between time-sharing computers in the 1960s and was a synchronous communication method, meaning that users had to be logged into the same network at the same time to share messages. This system was then improved by computer programmer Ray Tomlinson in the 1970s as part of the ARPANET system, the precursor to today’s internet, so that users could asynchronously send mail to one another’s mailbox. In its current state, email, text messaging and social media are all part of our daily lives at work and home, which has led to concerns regarding information overload and the expectations that derive from being “on” constantly.
I recall my pre-email career when, as managers, we both wrote and received paper-based memos that were to be shared and discussed among our teams. These notes typically included updates to operational standards, leadership announcements and the evaluation of performance against our annual objectives. For managers these communications set the stage for team questions, discussions and input that ultimately led to agreement over next steps.
These conversations were extremely valuable because they were two-way exchanges where the context of the topic was clear and individuals were part of the interaction. With our stronger dependency on email, the intent and tone of messages are often lost or misinterpreted. Consider how many times we have read emails only to have a visceral reaction about the content, when I am sure that the sender had a different purpose in mind.
With the perennial challenges of employee engagement, effective organizational communication is a must to ensure company alignment and achievement of our enterprises’ aspirations. Accepting that change is an inevitable part of progress. Here are a few ways that we can combine old practices with current ones:
Write, then evaluate. Draft the message, read it back and then evaluate whether email is the most effective medium for the topic or action requested of the recipients. For example, a sign that I have received an email message that is ineffective is when I have to read it multiple times and then print the note to decipher the request.
Structure the message. Once you decide that email is the best communication vehicle due to practical issues such as the geographic distribution of the participants or timeliness of the message, then structure the message using best practices. These practices may include:
- Declare the message intention in the subject line, such as “FYI” or “action requested.”
- Provide the relevant background information about the topic in a succinct paragraph or in bullets.
- State the action or the request of the recipient.
- Clarify the response date as needed.
Meet after the email. To ensure alignment and understanding, hold a brief follow-up in person or a virtual meeting to discuss the content of the emails. By utilizing regular meetings as a communication practice and linking those to email communications, those messages can then be discussed, clarified and moved into action.
I have seen this combination of methods work well during an unplanned CEO transition that occurred over a two-day period where the lead board director sent an email to senior leadership and then to all employees, which was then followed up by teleconferences and in-person town halls to clarify the new organizational structure and roles and to answer questions.
Like many advancements spawned by the digital age, perhaps the best answers aren’t a full shift to new solutions, but instead a combination of both longstanding and contemporary approaches to yield the most effective results for our organizations.