E-mail has revolutionized communication both in and out of the workplace. Just a handful of decades ago, if you wanted to communicate with a person who wasn’t in the same physical location as you, you had the option of a hand-written memo or a phone call. That was it.
E-mail is often identified as the preferred form of communication for the Millennial generation, seemingly because they have had e-mail addresses since many of the older ones were in middle school or younger. E-mail has some definite advantages as a way to communicate in business:
- Leaves a Written Record: There are times when you are communicating something you know you might need to reference later. Thanks to e-mail, you can keep what you initially sent and the reply for later.
- Thoughtful communication: Sure, we all know people who seem to type out e-mails as fast as they can speak the words and e-mail them without a second thought. But e-mail does give you the option to consider what you are saying, and re-work as necessary.
- Responding at the Right Time: If you are in the middle of a task and an e-mail on another subject comes in, you don’t have to respond to it right away. You can complete what you are working on, and then respond when you have time to focus.
But I learned early on in my career that if you have the option of either a face-to-face conversation or an e-mail, face-to-face conversations are nearly always preferable for the myriad of other side benefits they offer.
My first career job was as a collections curator at a museum in a small town in a rural central Kansas county. I’m a Michigan girl who happened to find herself in Kansas by virtue of the spectacularly lackluster job market after I graduated forcing me into an internship with the National Park Service in Kansas as the only alternative to life in my parent’s basement. After moving here, it was clear that I also had an outsider problem. As an outsider in a small town there is an automatic sense of distrust among locals.
I quickly discovered that e-mails would often be swept aside, or even completely ignored because the people I was e-mailing had no idea who I was. To combat this, I began doing meetings face-to-face whenever possible, and by phone when it was not. Not only did this help combat the “suspicious outsider” reaction and help build trust in me and the work I was doing, it helped establish a strong reputation in the community which I could then leverage when I needed help. I can tell you without hesitation that I would never have been able to put together the community events, exhibitions and supporting activities for the traveling Smithsonian exhibition The Way We Worked, or anything else, without having the trust of the local school district, the county economic development board and city government…trust gained through face-to-face meetings, not via e-mails.
This is a lesson I have brought with me to my current position as well. Working in technology, most of my colleagues rely on e-mail or inter-office IM to communicate and ask questions, even if the person is just a few doors down from them. As for me, I prefer to speak with them in person if it is possible. Taking ten or fifteen minutes to ask someone your question can not only get you your answer, it can get you a lot of background and related information which can help you accurately frame the situation you are dealing with. Nothing beats knowing what you are walking into before you actually arrive. Having this background information lets me know who the power players are and helps me read the room; it makes the change management aspects of my job that much easier.
As an added bonus, holding face-to- face meetings helps establish your reputation at the office and puts you in front of people in a way that makes you harder to ignore. If a new opportunity comes up, a decision maker is far more likely to remember you if you have had face-to-face conversations than if you are just an e-mail signature line. Establishing a strong reputation is also one of the best protections against malicious or jealous co-workers. Having social capital in the office has saved me on a number of occasions throughout my career, and it’s still a core skill in my professional toolbox. Building your social capital at the office is a requirement for advancement, so use face-to-face meetings whenever possible; the added benefits are priceless!