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03.01.2022 Organisation & processes

How and when to use email in business communication

How and when to use email in business communication

Should your email really be an email, or are you better off sending a quick chat message or scheduling a meeting? Find out how and when to use email in business communication to communicate more effectively in the workplace.

When it comes to how to best use email communication in business, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Think about it.

If you work in sales you might send dozens of emails to clients every day. As a Content Writer, maybe not so much. As a Front-end Developer, well, the only reason you have a business email is probably just because it’s company policy…

And then there are all the different internal communication tools businesses use in the workplace. Chat tools like Slack, video conferencing tools like Zoom, project management software like Asana. Which tools you use alongside email will, in turn, change your company’s definition of email best practices.

So as you read on, keep in mind that this is not a set-in-stone, copy-paste solution. These are email usage guidelines and suggestions, not hard rules. But they do work for us here at JOIN. So they might work for your business, too.

That said, we do think some email etiquette is simply non-negotiable. You should always give your emails clear titles. And the importance of setting an out-of-office reply is really a no-brainer. But we cover all that in our separate proper email etiquette guide.

Below, we’ll quickly go through when best to use email as your means of communication (and when not to).

Quick overview: To email or not to email?

When to use email When not to use email
  • Asynchronous, less-invasive communication
  • External communication
  • Sharing important documents
  • Announcements, updates & other formal messages
  • One-off messages to a select group
  • Synchronous communication
  • Chitchat, memes, and other fun stuff
  • When it’s better to have a meeting
  • Internal file sharing
  • Further (internal) communication that’s better suited for other channels

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5 times you should use email communication in business

A McKinsey Global Institute report found that the average worker spends about 28% of the average workweek reading and answering emails. That’s a lot more than most of us would like. And although email is definitely here to stay (for now, at least), that percentage shouldn’t have to be that high.

True, many of these emails will be essential business communications. Whether a message to a client or sharing a company update with the team, email is often the default service used to share information, both internally and externally.

And especially now remote and hybrid work have become the new normal we need email to communicate effectively. But we shouldn’t let it take up more than a quarter of our time. So here are some simple guidelines to help you cut down unnecessary email usage in your organisation.

1. Email is for asynchronous, less-invasive communication

There are several benefits to using email rather than another form of communication, such as picking up the phone or talking to someone in person. Two of the most important benefits are that email is asynchronous and non-invasive.

Asynchronous communication means communication that is not direct, instant, or ‘live’. When you speak to someone on the phone you are talking directly to each other at the same time (not literally hopefully; that wouldn’t be great phone etiquette). The same goes for having a meeting or chatting with someone via Slack or WhatsApp.

Although someone can reply to an email within seconds this is not the purpose of email. And it’s not the best-suited tool for such direct communication, either.

With email, you need to first open someone’s email and then press the reply button. Sometimes you even have to open a separate window before you can start typing your message. Instant messaging apps like Slack allow you to directly type your reply and hit that Enter button. Done.

That’s why email is better for asynchronous rather than synchronous communication. It allows the recipient to read what is said, process the message, and take their time to form a proper reply.

And that makes email a much less-invasive way of communication than when you barge into someone’s office asking them for last month’s report. It gives the recipient time to think about the question, dig up that report, or simply finish what they’re doing first before they get back to you.

So ask yourself: Do you need a direct response? Then try a call, instant messaging, or have a chat. Is it ok if you get a response in a few hours or even the next day? Then an email might be better suited.

But before you open your Gmail and start typing, try to consider these next points as well.

2. Email is still (mostly) best for external communication

Yes, you can add external clients to messaging tools like Slack or project management platforms like Asana. You can also pick up the phone, which is particularly effective when you work in sales. And then there’s the option to visit clients in person. If your geographical location and industry permit doing so, that is.

But for many industries and businesses, email is still the channel of choice for external communication. It’s quick to write an email and it allows you to easily reach people outside of your organisation, no matter where they are.

The phone offers a similar efficiency, but if you’re part of the 62% of office-based employees who experience phone call-related anxiety (as found by a Face For Business survey) email is just much less scary.

Also bear in mind that by phone you can only reach one person at a time. With email, you can send out messages en masse, bulk sending that newsletter or introductory email to hundreds or thousands of recipients at once.

And then there’s the big benefit of emails recording everything that’s been said. Whether you just want to re-read what was discussed or you actually need written proof for legal matters. Email helps you keep track of it all. And that leads us to point three.

3. Sharing important documents

Much of today’s (internal) file-sharing happens via cloud-based services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or One Drive. And project-management and instant-messaging tools further facilitate quickly sending documents across. But in most organisations, email still has its place in this system.

Whether sending a team member the new version of their contract or sharing a confidential document with one of your clients. Some files are simply better shared in a one-on-one email than somewhere in the middle of your meme-filled DMs.

Do bear in mind that some information might be too confidential (or in some cases, controversial) to discuss via email. Email is not a full-proof system and emails can end up in the wrong hands with potentially serious, legal repercussions as a result.

So if you want to discuss something “behind closed doors”, like whether you should fire Karen, you’re probably better off discussing it in person.

4. Announcements, updates & other formal messages

Similar to point three, there will be times when sending out an email is just more appropriate. Although email is generally considered less formal than a physical (hand-signed) letter delivered by post it is usually more formal than an instant message on WhatsApp or Slack.

An important aspect of this is that it doesn’t allow for direct discussion or immediate feedback on the part of the recipient. As explained in this study on informal communication, this way of communicating is perceived as more formal than communication that invites direct feedback, like a group chat.

And this is often done on purpose. Such announcements are specifically meant to be one-way forms of communication, rather than dialogue starters.

Public service announcements and important team updates, such as a change in management or organisational structure, are therefore often best sent via email.

5. One-off messages to a select group

This point covers both formal and informal messages that are just a bit awkward via other channels. There is no clear rule or guideline on this, and it will be a matter of judging the situation and personal preference. When in doubt you can briefly discuss preferences with your team.

For example, a team member’s birthday is coming up. You create an e-card and want to send everyone (aside from the person in question, of course) a link to e-sign it. You don’t really need people to respond to your message and you can’t post it in a group chat either as the birthday person is in the chat.

In random instances like this, email is probably the communication channel of choice.

Someone with hands on the keyboard of a laptop typing something for email communication
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

5 times you shouldn’t use email for business communication

We’ll keep this part a bit shorter because we’ve already covered a few of these while discussing the email communication best practices above.

1. Don’t use email for synchronous communication

If you want an instant response to your question then you’re better off using the tools that are designed for that purpose. Google Chats, Slack, Microsoft Teams or even Skype all allow for quick pinging. Prefer to take it offline? Then you can pick up the phone, chat with them in person, or schedule a meeting (first see point 3 below, though).

Unless you don’t have the option to do so, for example when it’s an external client, we advise you to use something quicker than email for synchronous communication.

2. Chit chat, memes and other fun stuff

Work shouldn’t just be about work. It’s also the place for good old office banter and great watercooler conversations. This used to only happen in real life, in company kitchens or at someone’s desk.

But with an increasing number of people wanting to be able to work more remotely, a sentiment further accelerated by the pandemic, such fun moments have gone virtual. Facilitating these non-work conversations is part of building a strong remote culture at your business.

In most cases, however, email is not the right virtual channel for chit chat and banter. Memes and jokes are best shared where people can reply instantly. Slack, Google Chats… You know the list by now.

3. When it’s better to have a meeting

Employees can hate on meetings all they want. Whether they like it or not, meetings are essential to running a business. They allow for the quickest, most direct form of communication. It’s where decisions are made and actions are created.

But whether you think of meeting in person or going virtual with a tool like Zoom, just make sure it really has to be a meeting. For more information check out our separate article on how to tell if it needs to be a meeting.

4. Internal file sharing

As mentioned, many companies use Google or One Drive to store their files in the cloud. These platforms are perfect for internal file sharing as you can just give everyone in the team access to the relevant folders.

No more downloading a Word file to your computer to then send it as an attachment to a colleague. Instead, have and share it all directly in the cloud.

Side note: be careful with giving everyone access to all files and folders. You might want some stuff (like confidential client information) to only be accessible for a select group of people.

5. Further internal communication that’s better suited for other channels

We’ve covered a lot of communication use cases in this article, but there will be hundreds more.

For example, what if you have a single question to ask a colleague that’s not time-sensitive (so asynchronous)? Well, we would still suggest instant messaging rather than email.

Because let’s face it. Our inboxes are busy enough already without colleagues starting email threads for single questions that could be asked in chat. Still planning to turn it into an email?

Then at least have a quick read through our proper email etiquette guide so you’re up to scratch with all the email best practices.

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