When NOT To Use E-Mail

A while ago I published a workplace communication and collaboration tool decision tree. At that time I outlined five reasons (habit, personality, office layout, ignorance and unavailability) that cause many people to use the wrong tool, and stressed that cost is no longer a factor — most of these tools are available free.┬áIt would seem that for most people this is not intuitive. I’m still getting people asking me how they can reduce the inappropriate use of e-mail in their organizations. So this time around I’m going to be more explicit. Here are ten situations when you should not use e-mail, even though you may be tempted to do so:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism: It is just too easy for the written word to be misconstrued to use it to convey bad news. Have the courage to deliver it face to face. If that’s impossible or uneconomic, at least do it by phone. And I don’t mean leaving a voice-mail.
  2. When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward: If you receive an e-mail request for information that’s ambiguous or complex, you’re going to be inclined to ignore it, and leave it to someone else to reply. Expect others to do the same with your request. If it’s longer than one screen including dreaded attachments and links that need to be read, expect it to elicit a groan. A better approach is to discover which individual is most likely to have that information, and walk down the hall or pick up the phone and ask for it directly.
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial: You’re asking for a long e-mail thread that will make everyone involved more annoyed the longer it gets. Same answer as #2: in person or by phone.
  4. When you’re sending a few people complicated instructions: They’re going to have questions. E-mail is a cumbersome way to ask and answer them. Go visit them, or phone them, instead.
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document (probably attached to your proposed e-mail): This one is tricky, but my experience has been sitting down with people one-on-one and walking them through it will teach you (and the recipient) a lot more in a lot less time, and get more useful comments, than getting written comments that are hard to sync to the original document, or going through the messy and infuriating process of wading through ‘edit mode’ comments in Word. Do you really need to get comments from all those people anyway?
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis: If you need data to make important decisions on a regular basis, automate it or otherwise embed it in the business processes. Don’t use the e-mail system every month to ask for the same information.
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people: First ask yourself whether you need to tell a lot of people how to do their job. Why isn’t this in some on-line policy or procedure manual that people can look up if and when they need to? If you still need to do this, then make it into a self-paced e-learning module and post a link to it on the Intranet. Or if it’s too complicated for self-paced learning, use an interactive e-learning/videoconferencing tool. E-mail makes a lousy training tool.
  8. To achieve consensus: If a consensus is going to be at all meaningful, it needs to be achieved face-to-face, where people can actually discuss it. If that’s impossible, organize a videoconference or at least an audioconference. Organizations are not democracies: Votes by e-mail are only going to annoy those who get outvoted. Either invest the time to really listen to what people think, or just make a decision and live with it.
  9. To explore a subject or idea: Learn and apply Open Space methods. If that’s not practical, use a good online forum/discussion tool instead of e-mail.
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other ‘FYI’ stuff: Post it, where those who care about it can browse or RSS-subscribe to it. If the audience is a community of practice or community of interest, post it on a blog. If the audience is a project team, a group with a shared sense of purpose and urgency, post it to the team’s collaboration space or wiki. If the audience is really broader than that, post it to the Intranet, Extranet or public Internet site.

Some situations are a judgement call. For example, when you’re canvassing information from a large number of people, it makes sense to use a survey form or other short, simple-to-answer form instead of an e-mail. If it will fit on one screen, then it may make sense to embed it right in an e-mail message and send it that way. Otherwise, it’s probably better to send people a link to a proper survey tool, ask nicely, and expect very few people to reply.

And if you’re trying to arrange a meeting with a bunch of people, a lot depends on whether they share a calendar or other booking tool; if not, you may have to use a short e-mail.

If you need to send an attachment, think twice: e-mail is probably not the right vehicle, for one of the reasons above. Ditto if your e-mail is more than a screen in length. Or if you’re using an e-mail ‘group’ to send to. Or if your e-mail thread is already longer than three messages long. Or if you’re sending something out to a large group without really knowing who it should properly be targeted at. If you keep your own messages in a ‘sent messages’ folder, take a peek through them; you’ll probably blush at the number that would have been better unsent, dealt with another way.

So what’s left for e-mail?

  • Simple, unambiguous, straightforward requests for information, requests for approval and instructions, to one or a very small group of people (and even some of these requests for information are better addressed using instant messaging, if you have it). These are messages that the recipient can either deal with (or, worst case, add to their ‘to do’list) in less than a minute.
  • And, of course, things someone has specifically asked you to e-mail to them.

There. Is that clearer?

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4 Responses to When NOT To Use E-Mail

  1. Doug Alder says:

    Dave I can’t agree with you on #1. I work in an industry where customers regularly (read far more often than not) make wrong assumptions as to what has gone wrong and immediately call up and start to harangue sales, billing or support staff. It is unproductive behavior. When wearing my Customer Support that I can much more easily deal with a customer’s complaint (legitimate or not) if I receive it via email as I then have the time to investigate and get back to the customer with the truth of the matter and hopefully a resolution.

  2. Doug Alder says:

    not to mention that email leaves a verifiable trail whereas telephone calls and walking to an office to meet in person does not.

  3. mattbg says:

    I agree with Doug. E-mail does give a “paper trail” that is sometimes very valuable to have, particularly in overly political environments. In such environments, you’ll often get a phone call or an in-person visit specifically when someone doesn’t want to leave a paper trail of what they’ve asked or have committed to.Academically, I agree with your post. But… :)

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