Return to Sender!

By: Abby Stevenson; Edited By: Renee Schroeder

Throughout your life, you will inevitably be faced with difficult conversations that range from breaking up with someone, to being hired for your first job, or explaining your side in an argument. When it comes to technology, I rarely think about having these tough conversations from behind a screen. Yet, in the workplace, more and more critical conversations are happening via email.

Email has progressively transformed the modern workplace, changing the way we see day-to-day communication. Justifications for using email in place of face-to-face communication include choosing when to respond, having more time to craft a message, and avoiding physical confrontation. But how does using email in the workplace, as opposed to other digital mediums, affect our interpersonal communication skills?

Steve Urquhart, Rick Bommeljie and Wallace Schmidt, interpersonal communication researchers from Rollins College, conducted a study called “The Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication on the Workplace: A Pilot Study.” In this study, they analyzed the impact that communication through email had on interpersonal relationships in the workplace, as opposed to other forms of communication, such as face-to-face or telephone calls.

The study found that employees at businesses of all sizes generally preferred using email instead of telephone calls and face-to-face communication. Many of the staff believed that email improved their communication skills, because they were able to be more open and honest when shielding themselves behind a screen.

As the study progressed, the researchers found that employees preferred communication with authority figures through email. This preference of email, instead of a more personal medium, proves that employees in business settings are becoming increasingly non-confrontational. Many employees did not want to have tough conversations with their boss in person and preferred to carry out contact via email.

As someone who has worked in professional offices and used email to conduct interpersonal communication, I can attest that email is a great way to communicate quickly and effectively. From an employer and employee perspective, it can also be beneficial to have some communication in writing. If there is a dispute in the workplace that requires a record of what happened, email can serve as clarification and proof.

Email can also increase your interpersonal communication skills, as observed in the study. Email seems to give users the confidence to communicate effectively and honestly, which can be beneficial in some situations.

Communication researchers, Yunxia Zhu and Catherine White, from Queensland Business School conducted a study entitled “Practitioners’ Views About the Use of Business Email within Organization Settings: Implications for Developing Student Generic Competence.” Zhu and White delved into what organizational practitioners, or authority figures, say and feel about interpersonal communication through email.

The study used a series of personalized questionnaires to understand the individual and their thoughts on the use of email. The response, similar to the last study, was heavily in favor of email to communicate in the workplace.

The major difference however, was the way email should be used. Zhu and White discovered that organizational practitioners in the workplace felt that email was insufficient when it came to displaying human emotion. They felt that email was appropriate for arranging a place or time to meet, but not when it came to the hiring or firing of an employee or discussing something they did wrong. In that case, an in-person meeting was more appropriate.

Many organizational practitioners feared that prospective employees would be unable to have hard conversations in person, since they preferred the non-confrontational route that email provided. They expressed that future workers should consider strengthening their ability to have tough conversations.

As we can see from the studies, email has taken the workplace by storm in a positive way. The major concern about email stems from use in inappropriate ways, like handling difficult conversations from behind a screen.

Future employers want us to know that we need to be able to communicate both digitally and in person. Having interpersonal skills through every medium, including email, will make the next generation of employees a valuable asset to the workforce.

To all future employees: consider your day-to-day communication practice for your future work environment and make that practice perfect.

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