Two-way Emails in the Virtual Office

Why Emails are Better Than Phone Calls

Emails allow one to work collaboratively, without the inefficiencies of having to schedule a common time to talk. In a virtual office where members are in different time zones, and on different flextime schedules, email bridges the time zone gap.

Emails are also very convenient for the recipient. This is both because reading an email is a much much faster process than having a conversation with someone about the same topic, and because the reader can process the email at a time s/he chooses appropriate, rather than at the instant the phone caller decides is appropriate.

Emails are particularly useful for group communications, because a full-group message can be sent as easily as any other, and takes little time for readers to process. A notification about something can be disseminated to the group with a total cost as low as one minute for the sender, and 5 seconds for each of the receivers.

Why Emails are Worse Than Phone Calls

On the other hand, email has real disadvantages, most deriving from the fact that it takes at least several minutes and often up to 24 hours to get a response to an email. This makes email inappropriate in situations where one will be stuck, working inefficiently, until an answer arrives, as well as in situations where a multiple back-and-forth for clarification is needed. A topic that requires a few back-and-forths (like setting a common appointment for two people with busy calendars) can take many days or even more, when the whole thing could be settled in 60 seconds by phone.

Due to the lack of back-and-forth, it is harder to communicate vague or complex messages by email than by voice. This is because the sender must anticipate the receiver's questions and produce a comprehensive document on the subject matter. By phone, the receiver can ask questions about only the points of confusion, allowing a more abbreviated and compressed communication.

When to Use Each

Emails should be used for: Phone should be used instead for:

Implementation Details

It's a small detail, but email subject lines are very important in allowing the reader to quickly classify emails and later to find them from a database when needed for reference. One should never send a subject-less email, it's the sort of mistake only email newcomers make.

Second, emails should be short. There's a beginner's tendency to translate either written business letter syntax to email, or to send dissertations. This is kind of like the quickcall, conciseness is very important. It's ok to write longer ones, especially for the dissemination of lots of useful information, or for distribution of a working document, but be aware that many readers have a tendency to read only the first few lines of long emails. If you really want the reader to notice something you've said, say it concisely and first.

Substantive changes:
    March 25, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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