The very practical part of me is cringing as I write this.

Do we really need to have a discussion about whether it’s better to email or phone? Is this really a question we need to ask?

IT JUST SEEMS SO FREAKING OBVIOUS!

Image of peanuts with a sign that says "This product contains peanuts"

But.

It is a question I get asked often in trainings, so here are a few things to consider.

When to email and when to pick up the phone

Is the person likely to be available right now?

If it’s office hours and they spend a lot of time in the office, there’s a good chance they’ll be available, and a phone call might be the best option. If you have reason to believe they’re out of the office or away from their desk, email might be better.

Or how about this – try to give them a quick call, and if you have no joy, THEN flick them an email. Problem solved. You don’t have to be a mind-reader.

Here is a joke for all the mind readers out there...

Will their answer to your first question determine the rest of the direction of the conversation?

Yes?

Then a phone call is likely to save you huge amounts of time.

Often a 3-minute phone call can replace literally hours of regular to-ing and fro-ing of stilted email conversation.

Be efficient, people!

Meme: "As per my last email..." (If you'd read the fucking email, dickhead...) #decodingcorporatejargon with Shelly Davies

Is there a chance someone might misread/misinterpret/take offence?

Yes?

Then pick up that phone.

This is one of the most important times NOT to use email.

It’s also a situation when you probably need a written record of the conversation, but this can and should probably happen AFTER the verbal conversation. Read more on that below.

Is it a simple question but the response might take a while to explain in writing and that might lead to follow up questions?

Yes?

Then pick up the phone.

You’re much more likely to have a complete conversation in one go rather than dragging it out over hours or days.

Are you a slow writer?

Yes?

Then pick up the phone.

That’s just smart.

You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important. - Abileen Clark "The Help"

Is this person more likely to call you or email you?

Take their lead.

If they regularly call you, you should take that as an indication that it’s their preference, and just call.

If they’re a more regular emailer, they might be more introverted and more comfortable with email. Or they might just think that’s more appropriate – you could call them once and see how it goes.

Get a sense of their comfort level with that approach, or even—hold onto your hats—you could ASK them what their preference is!

GIF-I'm sorry I didn't answer my phone when you called.  I don't use it for that!

How many people need to be part of this discussion?

If it’s more than 1, email is probably better.

Although if it’s 2 or 3 people, and it’s a tricky conversation, you could consider calling each one, then following up with a group email to confirm the outcomes of the conversations.

Do you need a (digital) paper trail?

We often do. But that shouldn’t mean we rule out the possibility of a phone call.

If we need something on record, that might mean there’s some tension or sensitivity around the subject. Which therefore means it’s better navigated verbally, through 2-way conversation that can have instant, responsive interaction – email doesn’t have that ability.

 So pick up the phone. Have the conversation. And then follow up with a clear, relaxed, structured email to create the record.

 (I do have some very important advice around how to write that email so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot. More on that here)

An almost last thought

If you try calling and don’t get through, but you still think a phone call is going to save time, how about shooting through an email that just asks them to give you a quick call? 

Yes, you CAN do that.

What if I get it wrong?

Guys, there just isn’t a right and wrong here.

I think that’s what people are worried about – what if I get it wrong? 

Well, I think that’s called being human. We can only do our best. And mistakes are part of life.

Good emails are about claiming permission to be the good human you are - just in writing.  - Shelly Davies

Pause, think through some of the considerations above, and then do the damn thing whichever way feels best. You’ve got shit to do.

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In a Modern Workplace Woes VT Virtual Session last week, Visible Thread CEO Evelyn Wolf and I got real about “Email Communication

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