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Preferred Ways to Communicate Effectively at Work

Woman sitting in front of two computer screens. On one is a video chat, on the other an email.

Have you ever played a game of telephone? The concept is simple. Yet, it’s notoriously difficult to win. Someone starts by whispering a word or phrase in someone’s ear. That person whispers the same word or phrase into another person’s ear. And on it goes until you arrive at the last person who then reveals the word. Simple enough, right?

As anyone who has played can tell you, it’s rare for the original word to make it all the way to the end. Somehow “tiger” can turn into “elephant” and “happy birthday” can turn into “goodnight.” It’s an intriguing phenomenon.

Now, some people see the telephone game as just that: a game. We would argue, however, that it’s an exercise that reveals how difficult it can be to communicate with others. If people cannot even accurately pass a simple, single word down a line, how can we expect company values, visions, or strategic initiatives to spread through an organization with clarity—especially now in a hybrid world?

Based on our research, it’s become more critical than ever to choose your channel wisely. In 2021, Duarte surveyed 294 professionals about power skills focusing particularly on people’s communication preferences in today’s work environments. The majority of our respondents (79%) reinforced what we’ve quickly come to know: the future of work will be hybrid.

With the shift to remote and hybrid work, it is imperative to hone our communication skills, especially since communicating well in online and remote settings was rated as the number one communication challenge for organizations in our survey. In fact, our research found that communication is the number one power skill all employees need to have now.

To get a pulse on the communication preferences in our shifting workplaces, we asked professionals about preferred communication channels across 20 different workplace situations. We found that six communication channels emerged as the most preferred means of communication: Email, in-person, webpages, instant messaging / chat, social media, and online collaborative applications.

This figure shows six preferred communication channels linked up to 20 different workplace situations. The communication channels are on the left and the situations are on the right, and there are paths connecting the channels with the situations. In our research we found that email was the preferred communication channel for the following situations: Communicating an agenda or list of things to do or status updates, sending information to internal stakeholders, sending information to external stakeholders, and contacting leads (from a sales role). The next communication channel, in-person, was preferred in the following instances: providing feedback, real-time collaboration or brainstorming, and making a pitch to investors. The next communication channel, webpages, was preferred when sending public facing messages, sharing data insights publicly, and communicating about a real-time crisis to the public. The next communication channel, Instant Messaging / Chat, is preferred when communicating in real-time, communicating across (sending a message across a team or persons at the same or similar level as you), and urgent messaging to a team member or other person at your organization. Social Media is preferred when communicating about a real-time crisis to external stakeholders. Finally, online collaborative apps are preferred when performing asynchronous collaboration and brainstorming.

Email is the Most Preferred Communication Channel

We found that email was the most preferred communication channel for a variety of work tasks and contexts.

This may come as a surprise considering some of the previous studies and commentary on email usage. Some research has reported checking emails can be associated with stress. Others have found that emailing isn’t always the most effective medium when communicating requests. And some even question if Gen Z might “free the world from email.”

This figure shows a design resembling a flower, with the word “email” in the center and each petal is pointing to a different context and situation. This design intends to communicate the different scenarios in which email is preferred. In our survey, respondents identified email as the preferred communication channel in the following scenarios: Communicating an agenda or tasks, communicating up (sending a message up the ladder), company-wide messaging, sending information to an internal stakeholder, sharing data insights to internal stakeholders, communicating down (sending a message from leadership to employee(s)), communicating about a real time crisis to all employees, sending information to an external stakeholder, contacting leads (from a sales role), and communicating about a real time crisis to external stakeholders.

Nevertheless, email is preferred in certain contexts—such as sending information to external and internal stakeholders, communicating up the row to executives, sending messages company wide, and communicating an agenda or task.

While email is seen as preferred in many situations, it was also one of people’s least favorite channels to use when communicating in a work setting. To maximize email and share information to others in a short and concise manner, a quick tip is to include a Slidedoc™ to better organize and deliver detailed information that supports the message you’re sending. In fact, we saw strong preferences for Slidedocs, and other readable documents like PDF’s, when sharing data insights to internal stakeholders and the public.

When Communication is Urgent, Use Instant Messaging

When communication is more urgent, or when employees want to communicate in real-time, email is clearly not the best go-to. Instant messaging (IM) and chat apps are far better. In fact, we found IM was even preferred in these situations over phone or video conferencing. Given IMs are often very short, it is critical to be thoughtful about your phrasing to avoid miscommunication and a reduction in productivity. (Remember our game of telephone?)

When Stakes are High, Face-to-Face Communication is Best

When communicating in high-stakes scenarios—such as difficult conversations, providing feedback, and making a pitch to investors—skip the email and initiate a conversation. While face-to-face communication may not always be feasible, what’s important is seeing someone’s facial expressions and cues.

When Collaborating, Meetings are Most Effective

Remote and hybrid work also has implications for how we collaborate with our colleagues. As Salesforce says, “We aren’t just changing where we work, but how we work. Just like maintaining long-distance relationships with friends through technology, new hybrid working models are challenging workers to collaborate with their colleagues in new and different ways.”

Duarte’s research found that when it comes to real-time collaborating or brainstorming, meetings are preferred (in-person followed by online). This makes sense because brainstorming and collaborating tend to be most effective when we are synchronously working together. Given the nature of our flexible work today, however, that’s not always feasible. That’s when online asynchronous tools can help fill the gaps.

Empathy is the North Star, Regardless of Channel

At the end of the day, regardless of the channel or message, the underlying principle at the heart of great communication still holds true. And that is understanding your audience and communicating with them through a lens of empathy.

So, before your fire off that quick email, stop and ask yourself: is this the best format to share this message? Or would a short meeting be better? As we can see from our research, the delivery matters, a lot. The higher the stakes, the more important that channel becomes, especially if your message could get misconstrued.

Because if you’ve played that game of telephone, you know how embarrassing or confusing it can be to hear one thing and the intent was something entirely different. Succeeding in this world of hybrid and remote work means being more intentional and purposeful in how we communicate, every day.

Learn which power skills are needed for success in 2022 by downloading our learning and development and power skills report

Illustration by Alexis Macias