10 Times E-Mail Is the Best Choice for Workplace Communication

Because e-mail can be the worst, but sometimes it’s useful

By Kyra Sutton, Ph.D. August 20, 2019
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Dear Favorite Person [insert evil grin]:

If you send me one more e-mail about ____ (really anything!), I am certain what remains of our fragile working partnership will no longer be possible to maintain.

We've exchanged no fewer than 10 e-mails about the same topic, and I have attempted to respond to all of your inquiries. You've asked a number of questions that are all related to conversations we've had in the not-so-distant past. Moreover, we had a kickoff call during which many of the questions you asked over e-mail were addressed.

I suppose we're at a point where one must consider: Is it me or is it you?

I am inclined to believe it is you. Perhaps boredom is the culprit, as your prior 10 e-mails were unnecessarily long-winded and filled with flawed, irrational suggestions and feedback.

I would like to save you the trouble of sending your 11th e-mail. I've set up a special rule for your e-mails. Specifically, any e-mail with your name as the sender goes directly to my trash folder. While this is not a practice I would generally support, it's obvious your goal is to make my day difficult and unproductive.

Signed,

I Am Over It!  

 

Ready to hit send? Perhaps even to tailor this e-mail to your own circumstances?

I understand! In fact, not too long ago I wanted to send a replica of this e-mail to a colleague who was unreasonable in his demands and perpetually bothersome.

However, what happens if you send this e-mail (or something similar)?

It explodes—and I mean that almost literally. Consequences are likely to follow, which can include losing your job.  

Unlike in college, where sending an inappropriate e-mail to a professor may have resulted in your being reprimanded, if you send an angry e-mail at work (i.e., your first real job), the ramifications are significant. Why? Because everything you do at work is a reflection of your personal brand and reputation.

In the Internet age, it almost seems acceptable to hide behind a wall and send as many insults as you please. What if you don't send an e-mail and instead post on social media how much you hate working with that loser? Again, consequences can occur.

And while the temporary high of telling off a co-worker, who is undoubtedly a jerk, is tempting, it is not worth risking your reputation. Save those difficult conversations for a more appropriate—and calm—time and place.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal published a great article on e-mail best practices at work. The key takeaway is figuring out when e-mail should be used.

Based on my experience, here are 10 workplace examples of when e-mail is the best communication medium.

1. You can resolve a problem. If you are faced with a problem that can be solved with an e-mail, you have hit the jackpot. Remember, if people reach out to you for help, it's because they trust you will be able to give it. If you can offer an answer, not waste anyone's time and take something off someone's to-do list, you are doing well!

2. You have a question. Suppose you have a question (perhaps for your manager) and you are pretty sure you know the answer, but you need confirmation. E-mail is your friend. As an example, suppose you want to confirm if the office will be closed for both Thanksgiving Day and the day after Thanksgiving. Easy breezy—send your manager an e-mail!

3. You need to communicate a new initiative. Suppose you have been working on a project and the solution you helped create needs to be communicated with stakeholders. E-mail is your friend. In fact, you should send out an initial e-mail to your stakeholders and follow up with a call to address any questions they may have.

4. You need to remind the group of something. E-mail is great when you need to send out reminders to your stakeholders—for example, to ensure that they complete any outstanding tasks.

5. You need to clarify a meeting's purpose. Another way of using e-mail is to tell a group of stakeholders what will be accomplished in an upcoming meeting. Meetings really are the root of all evil, and there is no worse meeting than one where a bunch of people on Skype, on the phone or in a room have no idea what should be accomplished.

6. You need to find or disseminate resources. E-mail can be helpful when you want to locate resources. If the resource is a person, you could ask "Does someone on the team have advanced programming experience?" If the resource is financial, you might inquire "Do we have enough in our team's budget to fund _____?" You can also use e-mail to share resources, such as data, other information or an interesting article. 

7. You need to build a relationship. I fully believe in the power of building relationships, but I know that they take time to develop. You can move things forward by sending an e-mail. Personalize it by stating something you have in common with the individual. For instance, you could say:

"I really enjoyed meeting with you today and I can't wait to see the Eagles play this season, either. Preseason games will have to hold us over until then. It sounds like we're both doing work that is aligned with the inside sales strategy and goals for 2019. Are you open to meeting for coffee?"

8. You want to keep in touch. Outside of work, there are several types of people with whom you should maintain contact. Examples include former professors, mentors and individuals you meet at conferences. But these may not be people you can text. If the person is not your friend in the traditional sense of the word, don't text them. Instead, send an e-mail and keep them abreast of progress you are making in your career. Here's an example:

"Hi Professor______. You may remember me from your Labor & Economics class. I took it in spring 2018, and I really enjoyed it. I graduated in May, and I am now working for the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. Several of the concepts you shared in class are applicable to the projects I am leading. I hope to stay in touch with you and keep you abreast of my progress."

9. You want to update the team on a project. If you have a project update that requires no additional decision-making or discussion among your stakeholders and you want to communicate the progress you've made, send an e-mail.

10. You want to share positive feedback. While development feedback such as "it could have been better if" should be shared in person, use e-mail to share a positive experience. In fact, when you share positive experiences, e-mail the individual and copy his or her manager on the message. Be sure to include how the person helped you and what you were able to accomplish with his or her assistance.

There is a time and place for e-mail (despite texting, Slack and Skype creating the impression that e-mail is a dying technology). Just make sure to use it responsibly at work.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University's School of Management & Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

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