Video, E-Mail or In Person: Match Communication Method to Your Message

By John Egan June 15, 2020

​Virtual and in-person communication need not be an either-or proposition in pandemic-era workplaces. Rather, workplaces can strike a balance between these two types of communication as they incorporate remote and in-office work. Yet how do you decide which communication method works best in a given situation?

Whether you take a virtual or in-person approach depends on the purpose of the communication. A videoconference might be appropriate in one situation, while an in-person talk might be preferable in another.

Here are four tips for successfully bridging the gap between virtual and in-person communication.

1. Devise a plan

Ann Nihil, operations and culture manager at Alachua, Fla.-based Fracture, which prints photos on glass, suggested developing best practices regarding when to use virtual communication versus in-person communication. Managers know when a quick chat, lengthy discussion or collaborative meeting is in order. The best practices can dictate which communication method matches the occasion. Narrowing their choices will make the managers' job easier.

"An overabundance of communication tools can cause mental overload and uncertainty as to what to use and when," Nihil said.

The plan should include guidance on which tools are preferred for various scenarios. For example, when should you rely on the Slack app for back-and-forth communication? If you're troubleshooting a tech problem, should you opt for a phone call instead of a Slack chat?

2. Practice the "art of management"

Sure, collaboration tools and virtual-meeting software help workplaces navigate remote work and in-office work, according to Robert Teachout, SHRM-SCP, legal editor at New York City-based XpertHR USA, an online provider of legal advice for employers. But those innovations don't work in every instance.

Teachout says managers must gauge how much autonomy an employee desires and how much "checking in" is needed. That is where the "art of management" comes in.

"While one employee may crave more contact, another may work more effectively with an occasional call or virtual meeting," Teachout said.

An employer should step up communication—the virtual and in-person varieties—in times of uncertainty, Teachout said.

"During times of crisis, employees want and need more communication and transparency," he said. "Regular, frequent updates via e-mail, IMs, or telephone or Skype calls provide a lifeline to the organization that assures employees that they are not alone and out of the loop."

3. Take a break

It's common to set aside break times during lengthy in-person meetings. Nihil pointed out that you also should schedule breaks during virtual meetings that last at least one hour.

"Standing up, stretching and pausing the discussion will help refresh the team," she said, "and hopefully bring the group back with new ideas and thoughts."

Teachout recommended including a few minutes of social time before diving into the agenda of virtual meeting so that colleagues can feel connected to one another. For example, the leader of the meeting might ask everyone to share their recent experiences with social distancing.

Keep in mind, he said, that some meetings—such as quick "touch base" check-ins—can be shorter than formal meetings to avoid meeting burnout.

4. Determine which meetings should be in person

Sam Liu, principal at New York City-based benefits consulting firm Mercer, suggested that get-togethers requiring rapid real-time communication—such as brainstorming sessions—be held in person if possible while, of course, following health and safety guidelines.

"By nature, remote work setups have the tendency to be less collaborative, just for the simple fact that everyone is spread out in their own workspace," said Petrena Ferguson, senior vice president of human resources at Westford, Mass.-based Ribbon Communications, a provider of communications software.

If a meeting is conducted virtually, participants should be given the option of turning off the video camera to help reduce "Zoom fatigue," Liu said.

"While video provides us with the great capability of connecting face-to-face, the truth is, it can be exhausting, and it's not feasible to always be 'on camera' all the time or for every interaction," Ferguson said.

Howard Tiersky, owner of Innovation Loft, a meeting space in New York City, said that aside from brainstorming sessions, these are times when in-person meetings might be ideal:

  • Project kickoffs and other cases when relationship-building is critical. "There's a sense of connection and empathy that just can't happen over video," he said.
  • Problem-solving exercises. Mapping out solutions on a whiteboard beats trying to come up with solutions over video, Tiersky said.
  • Half-day or full-day gatherings. Spending that much time on a videoconferencing platform can be mentally draining. "In-person meetings are far more natural and productive," he said.

Periodic in-person meetings where you're thinking, strategizing and innovating improve the effectiveness of work that's largely done remotely, Tiersky said. Nonetheless, Ferguson noted that face-to-face communication through videoconferencing "is a great way to stay connected with colleagues, customers and partners while working remotely."

To enhance in-person communication while also adhering to safety rules, Tiersky recommended handing out clear face masks to meeting participants.

"Masks are a common tool to reduce disease transmission, but regrettably, they also reduce communications," Tiersky said. "Nonverbal cues, including smiles and other facial expressions, go a long way toward building trust and creating strong relationships."

"Yes, it's more challenging to host an in-person meeting now, but it is possible to do so and still follow social-distancing guidelines," he added. "Online meetings are great, but there's nothing like getting together in the same physical space. Business is still a human activity, and there are times we need that human connection without a computer screen between us."

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.



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