Email is ubiquitous. It’s been in common usage since the 1970s. Instant messaging (chat) isn’t as ubiquitous, but thanks to the mobile phone has been in common usage since the 1990s. Discussion boards and electronic video meetings also pre-date the internet, but have come into more common usage when products like Skype and Zoom became freely available in the past decade or so.
Enterprise use of communications technology typically lags consumer use. Email didn’t reach widespread adoption in the enterprise until the late 1980s, with adoption of products from Lotus (later IBM) and Microsoft. Chat took longer to take hold in the enterprise, again when offerings became available from the regular office product providers IBM (SameTime) and Microsoft (Lync) around 2007 and beyond. Discussion-centered platforms like Yammer, Workplace from Meta, Jive, etc., became more ubiquitous in the enterprise only in the last decade or so.
A Smorgasbord of Communication Choices
Today, while experiencing the most digitally intense working period ever, we have a smorgasbord of digital communication options. Like any good smorgasbord, you are spoiled for choice — and we all have our favorite go-to dishes. The difference in this case is your choice will have an impact on the people you work with. If you choose to work in chat, then your colleagues have to as well. If you choose to work only in email, so will your colleagues. Digital communication use is like one large dating app! And the workplace is being forced to find perfect matches everywhere.
The above graph looks to capture the differing dynamics of the four communication modes. Technology no longer dictates the frequency of interactions (cadence) and responsiveness, but expectations do. For example, the time to deliver an email is often comparable with the time it takes to deliver a chat message. Organizations that provide omnichannel support to their clients have studied expected response times in some detail. In this context, when we send an email, our expectation of a response is in the hours and sometimes days. Chat, however, sets an expectation of a much faster turnaround, usually in seconds or minutes. Our benchmarking of enterprise social and Microsoft Teams channel discussions show the majority of first responses come within an hour.
The intended reach of the different modes is illustrated by the shading in the bars. The heavily shaded area represents the “center of gravity” for each mode. The emails we send would typically include just a few others. However, those in leadership roles could be sending emails to much larger groups. Threaded discussions tend to involve a much larger number of people. In fact, depending on the size of the Team or Community, could stretch to hundreds. Chat and calls on the other hand are mostly one-on-one, with a few exceptions where additional members are added. Meetings, like threaded discussions, tend to involve more participants, but will have a natural upper limit, when compared with email and threaded discussions.
The important point from this chart is that if you choose to ignore the expectations, it is possible to do all your work in one or two modes. In fact, it’s common to hear stories about individuals who only want to live in email or live in chat. The problem is collaboration is a team sport. If your football team decided to allow members to choose their own individually colored jerseys, the results would be disastrous. Effective collaboration requires your collaboration partners agree on which modes of communications are going to be used for the different types of activities (e.g., when should we meet? when should we use a discussion thread over chat? Should we reserve email for external communications only?).
Related Article: Will Chat Replace Email?
Enterprise Communication Technology Trends
Enterprise communication vendors are now clearly differentiating chat from threaded discussions. Chat is positioned as personal and mostly one-on-one. Threaded discussions have been added to help end users have more ordered and focussed interactions. For example, popular chat application Slack added threaded discussions precisely for this reason. Likewise, Workplace from Meta offers two separate mobile phone apps: one for chat and one for threaded discussions. Market leading collaboration platform Microsoft Teams also distinguishes between chat — which it aligns with the calls and calendar/meetings of its predecessor Skype for Business — and its Teams channel discussions.
While vendors have their strengths and weaknesses, we see the market divides between platforms where collaboration principally occurs around documents, and platforms where people-to-people interactions are the focus (telephony). Microsoft 365 is arguably the only platform that provides comprehensive coverage of both.
Our early benchmarking studies of Microsoft 365 usage reveal some interesting patterns. We selected about 2,000 very active staff from across several organizations and plotted their synchronous activity (calls, chat, meetings) activity against their asynchronous activity (Yammer, Teams channels, SharePoint, OneDrive) and their email activity:
We found workers tended to partition into asynchronous and synchronous workers. Synchronous and asynchronous activity show a statistically significant negative correlation. This means there’s statistical ‘proof’ that these are opposite behaviors.
We also found a statistically significant positive correlation between synchronous activity and email activity. That means that people who use chat/meetings are also using email.
We are seeing two distinct worker types: those who prefer using Outlook email/calendar/meetings/chat and those who prefer Yammer/Teams channels/SharePoint/OneDrive. This partitioning is problematic from a collaboration perspective. Only a minority of staff are effectively balancing their activity between all three worker types. We suggest the “balanced” workers have optimized their digital behaviors for maximum collaborative performance.
Related Article: A Step-by-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration
The Pros and Cons of the Different Communication Modes
The following table identifies the advantages and disadvantages of the different communication modes:
Popular and easy-to-use medium
Universal (everyone has it)
Mass distribution and read tracking available
Accepted as a formal and legally binding medium
|Inefficient for team engagement and collaboration
Inconsistent speed of communication
Communication via emails can be chaotic.
Emails take far too much time to read and write. We get too many; and it is easy to miss something
Chats are quick
Brief and to the point
Texting is familiar, simple and quick to do
Team chats are private
It is possible to add others to a private chat
It’s impossible to ignore the endless notifications
Team chats are closed systems
Lack of archiving
Can be hard to search
Practical limit to number of participants
Can interrupt and disrupt your flow of work
Can be instant, but expectation is more asynchronous than synchronous
Integrated with knowledge sharing functions like shared content and collaboration
More participants, more diverse
Structured for ease of following or review in discussion threads
Easy searching for prior discussions
Easy for broad-based Q&A
Easy to announce and engage
Like Chat, is not ubiquitous like email
Requires some start-up costs e.g. creating and managing a community or team, integrating content
Intent is for sharing, so not as good for private communications
Lower responsiveness than Chat (but better than email)
Stronger engagement and relationship building
Faster resolution of complex issues
Best for creative group processes e.g. planning, brainstorming etc.
Inflexible (same time for all)
Can create the illusion of non-productive “busyness”
Can interrupt and disrupt your flow of work
Knowing the pros and cons of each mode places us in a better position to balance and optimize their use. It is important there is consistency within the groups you participate in, to avoid the frustration of mismatched modes, when attempting to collaborate.
Related Article: Less Is More When It Comes to Communication
‘Balanced’ Worker Decision Process
The following flow chart is offered as a guide for developing a balanced digital working habits for internal communications:
This process flow is not intended to cover all the contexts you may become involved in, but it does illustrate the intent for balancing the different modes.
As we move into a more hybrid way of working, the digital communication modes will become even more critical to our overall productivity. Remember that your personal choices will impact those you need to work with. It is best to set some ground rules at the start, rather than having to influence embedded habits in the future.
Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.