Imagine that all the different forms of business communication lie along a spectrum: on the far left is the most effective stuff and over on the far right is the most efficient. Where along this line will we find the right balance? Let’s start by looking at each extreme.
Effective communication: nothing beats face to face
In 2010, a couple of smart guys named Kevin Rockmann and Gregory Northcraft ran a study where they observed 200 students doing group projects together. Some met face-to-face, some used videoconferencing software, and others relied on email. Not surprisingly, the best results (both in terms of outcomes as well as trust and cooperation) came from groups who met in person; those who only used email did worst.
There’s no denying the benefits of face-to-face interactions. This is where all the non-verbal stuff (tone, facial expression, body language, etc.) happens, which they say accounts for up to 93% of all effective communication. This is where we really get engaged. Rapport, trust and confidence develops. Accountability takes root. All good things.
Unfortunately, face-to-face also tends to be rather inefficient. First off, two or more people have to be in the same meatspace at the same time. (And if you’ve ever tried to schedule a meeting for six people with less than a weeks’ notice, you know how hard that can be.) Second, everyone has to drop whatever they were doing to be there. Finally, once you’re all there, meetings in general just kind of suck.
Efficient communication: “lean communication”
So let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Over here is what is sometimes called “lean communication.” As with all things lean, this involves stripping away all possible waste and getting things done as efficiently as possible. Think Slack, Basecamp, and of course, email.
For the most part, this is pretty great. It’s mostly asynchronous, so it happens at everyone’s convenience – no interruptions required. If something isn’t urgent, you can fire off an email and get a response whenevs. Nice and smooth. It also has the added bonus of creating a searchable paper trail for future reference.
It’s far from perfect, however. Digital formats lack the richness of more personal communication, which limits the quality of the relationship. As a result, it tends to be a breeding ground for miscommunication. When two people are talking face-to-face, there’s a lot of give and take going on. But with something like email, each person has to interpret the context of the message in isolation. If you’re in a bad mood when read a message, you transfer that emotion to the messenger. You might send back a negative response and the next thing you know, someone is burning down your house.
The bungee approach
OK, so back to the original question: what is the right balance? I’d argue that it’s not about finding a perfect sweet spot, but rather a back-and-forth movement along the spectrum. Picture it like a horizontal bungee jump: you start over on the left with face-to-face interactions, shoot over to the right until you hit a certain point (of tension?), then bounce back to the start to get together in person again and “catch-up.”
I put this into action recently on my latest project. My entire dev team is based in a different city, so I flew out there for a week to meet everyone and kick things off. This initial time together set the tone and helped build my relationship with each of them, which has made all our subsequent “lean communication” a little thicker (i.e., more effective).
It seems to be working pretty well. I can now hear my colleagues “voices” in their emails, which results in less misunderstanding. As a result, I can be less formal and get my point across more quickly. The initial investment of the trip has already paid itself off easily. Now I just need to plan my next trip out to see everyone again before it all falls apart and I find my house on fire.