Monday, March 17, 2008

e-mail vs face-to-face meetings

One has to search the net very thoroughly in order to find an article which states e-mail is better than face-to-face meetings at work. In fact nearly all of them praise the advantages of face-to-face meetings. Some examples are Ditch Email: Face-to-face Meetings for the Win, Communicating persuasively: Email or face-to-face?, an excellent article at New York Times: e-mail is easy to write (and to misread), cited by lifehacker, and even some scientific papers such as Email as a speed-facilititating device.

In all these articles it is said, up to a more or lesser extent, that face-to-face communication is better than e-mail because participants in a conversation are continuously provided with imperceptible clues which make them know things about the others, about how they feel, about whether a topic is important or not, and so on.

It is hard to find someone who actually defends e-mail against this we-need-to-see-each-other way of thinking. Do not get me wrong. I actually think meetings can save time, but they are not the solution to every problem in the office. In fact e-mail has its strong points against meetings, and I am willing to enumerate some:

  1. E-mail works offline: you can read and write e-mails when you're in the office, at home, on a plane or at 3am in the morning. There is no need to synchronize with other human beings. Therefore it allows for more freedom. Plus, you do not need to wait until John and Alice are available to tell them someting in a face-to-face meeting.
  2. E-mail means written messages: one of the greatest advantages of e-mail is the fact that it holds written messages. Sure, they arrive fast, they are impersonal and cold. But you can tell very detailed ideas in an e-mail message. Everything you write ends up recorded as a bunch of bytes in lots of computers. There is proof of what you wrote and when you did it. E-mail is great at avoiding misunderstandings.
  3. E-mail makes broadcasting easy: sending a message to all the members in the office is not that much harder than sending it just to Alice. I do not need to have a meeting with 40 people (and hold them prisoners for two hours) to tell them something which can be told through a written message.
  4. E-mail allows you to tell what you think without interruptions: one of the biggest problems in face-to-face meetings, especially those involving more than 8 people, is that not everyone gets the chance to speak. Some people are simply more aggressive than others, and some never get to speak even when they have got good ideas in mind. E-mail allows everyone to clearly expose their ideas.
  5. E-mail is everywhere: maybe e-mail as a technology is coming of age, but that is one of the reasons you can find it everywhere. You can check your e-mail from your mobile phone or on the web while you are thousands of miles away from home. You do not need to actually be in the office to, erm, be in the office.

In conclusion, although face-to-face communication has got many advantages over e-mail, let us not forget all the advantages of e-mail over traditional communication methods. I would definitely not ditch e-mail like Freelance Switch suggests.

I would like to end by linking to a very interesting post by Tim Ferriss, How to stop checking e-mail on the evenings and weekends. The list is simple and very common-sense, but much time would be saved in the office if every member took a look at it before sending an e-mail message.

Photo by feria