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Texts and E-Mails vs. Oral Communication at Work: Which Is Best?

Whether to use written or oral communication in the workplace depends on the message and audience

A woman holding a cup of coffee and a cell phone.

​There's no question that many employees prefer to text or e-mail one another at work rather than pick up the phone or talk with someone face-to-face. The former is fast, simple and efficient.

But when it comes to sensitive issues—like personality conflicts or disagreements over a project—it's "sometimes easy to hide behind a text message when an oral message would be the best medium," said Michael D. Haberman, SHRM-SCP, a consultant with Omega HR Solutions Inc., in Atlanta. "If there is emotion tied to the message, then neither text nor e-mail is going to convey that information."

In today's technology-driven world, workers and managers must navigate how best to communicate with one another and that can be tricky if, for instance, younger workers prefer written communications and older ones think it's better to talk face to face.

"Companies have to face the reality that modes of communication change, and management needs to make adjustments accordingly," said Andrew Jensen, business efficiency, marketing and performance consultant at Sozo Firm Inc., a business efficiency consultant in Freedom, Pa.  

Texting Increasingly Popular

Communication forms have long been in a state of flux, and there will undoubtedly be generational differences about those forms, said Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, executive director of HR at the Cincinnati-based LaRosa's restaurant chain and member of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) board of directors. Don't fight change, he said, if younger workers' genuine intention is to communicate with you.

According to the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of smartphone owners use their devices to text every week. And according to Text Request—a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that helps organizations manage text conversations with customers, employees and others—texting is the most commonly used form of communication for U.S. adults under age 50; 91 percent of people who text say they prefer doing that to leaving a message on voicemail.

Text Request reported that 80 percent of professionals currently use texting for business purposes and nearly 70 percent of employees think texting should be used for interoffice communication.

But what kind of interoffice communication is texting appropriate for? 

It depends.

Texting or e-mailing a colleague or manager is undeniably quick and efficient, especially if a colleague or manager is "busy, has minimal availability or encourages texting," Jensen said.

But facial cues, vocal cues and body language convey messages that a written note can't. Texts and e-mails can be "open to interpretation," and people can "read into" a message and make conclusions that the sender did not intend, Jensen said. If the matter is of a delicate nature, "the interaction should be face to face," he said.

[SHRM members-only resource: E-Mail Policy]

Texting or e-mailing an employee with bad news is never advisable, Haberman said.

"You can text someone and write, 'Hey, we don't need you in today, so don't come in.' But you should not text, 'We don't need you ever again, don't come back,' " he said. "Never text bad news like that."

By the same token, using electronic communication to deliver incredibly good news—like a job offer or promotion—can seem cold and aloof, he said.

In both cases, there should be something in writing to document the firing or the job offer, but using electronic communication to tell someone they're being laid off or hired is unprofessional.

Nor should employees deliver their own bad news by text or e-mail. For example, if someone is requesting extended leave for a severe illness, a phone conversation is probably wise, Browne said.

When it comes to less weighty matters than hirings, firings and illnesses, getting to know your co-workers may be the best way to gauge the most productive way to communicate with them, said Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group Inc., a Miami-based workplace engagement consulting firm. "The most effective way to communicate is in a way that the receiver is comfortable with" and will be comfortable responding to, she pointed out.

Lauby said she's "amazed" that managers don't take the time to assess how employees prefer to communicate.

"The best way is to ask them," she said. "Managers can bring it up during a one-on-one meeting. For example, at the end of the meeting, the manager can say, 'I want us to stay in touch regarding this project. What's the best way for us to do that?'

"Or they can confirm after the fact. Let's say a manager sends instructions to an employee via e-mail. The manager can follow up by asking, 'Are you OK with me sending instructions via e-mail, or would you prefer another way?' "

Keep in mind that employees might prefer to communicate one way when following up on a meeting but another way when receiving direction, she said.

Put a Policy in Place

Having a written policy on the methods workers should use to communicate—one that addresses what's appropriate in what circumstances—is vital, Browne said.

The policy should explain "what types of employee and manager communications are permissible by text, by e-mail, by phone and by in-person meetings," Jensen said. "Those policies will vary by company, but the company that has a greater chance of successfully integrating Millennials into their culture will permit a degree of texting and a substantial amount of e-mailing."

A SHRM member who offered advice on SHRM Connect, an online community for members, wrote, "Having a policy … is not ridiculous. What is ridiculous is not having a policy." Another SHRM member wrote, "You know what your company needs, and base your policies on your knowledge."

It's advisable to consult with legal counsel when adding e-mail and texting to a company's communications policy, Lauby added.

Alison Curwen is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Pa.

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