Networking

Your Colleagues Use Email—But It May Be Better to Pick Up the Phone

Even in our email-heavy world, some conversations are best left offline.

There’s a clear pecking order when it comes to office communications. For most conversations with coworkers or clients, we use email, which over half of employees claim is their preferred method for discussions. After that, you have in-person confabs, followed by instant messaging (hi, Slack devotees) and texting.

The phone, on the other hand, accounts for less than 7% of preferred office communications, according to a survey from Fundera, a small-business loan app. Which isn’t surprising, considering how email and texts allow us to take time to think things through and not have to respond instantaneously.

Too often, email is a crutch for us.

Yet survey after survey show that phone conversations are the next best thing to face-to-face communications, leading career experts to remind us that communication isn’t just about what’s most comfortable for us. “What will be most efficient as well as most effective?” asks Nancy Von Horn, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. Here’s how to determine when you should pick up the phone and when it’s better to send an email.

Do you want to build trust?

If you’ve ever worked in an industry with large, multiyear contracts, chances are you’ve never seen someone snag a new customer without so much as talking to them. That’s because people need to hear your voice before they’re going to sign large checks. They need to get to know you, so that they can trust you, and that can rarely be done over email, where tone and style can take on a variety of connotations. “Unless you are a wiz at sending emotionally intelligent emails, your emotion, tone, and pacing are going to give you an advantage over the phone,” Von Horn says.

According to neuroscientists, humans can pick up emotional nuances within milliseconds of someone speaking to them. That creates connection in the immediate hello that isn’t achieved over email, and can go a long way in building trust. 

The winner: Phone

Do you need to present a lot of data? 

When you’re trying to explain an issue using swaths of data, talking points and conclusions can get lost on a phone call. It’s easier for people to process images, like pie charts and bar graphs, versus listening to you list off percentages faster than an auctioneer. So it’s best to email your colleagues or boss the PowerPoint presentation, and then follow up with a call after they’ve had time to digest the data.

The winner: Email

Are people confused? 

We’ve all had that long stream of emails, trying to perfectly explain a situation or topic, where nothing ever seems to get resolved. “Why aren’t they getting this?” you might want to scream. Your recipient, however, could be reading the emails differently than you. And if there are multiple people on the chain, there’s a good chance that everyone has come to a different conclusion.

That’s when picking up the phone to clarify the sticking points will not only make the issue more clear but will also save you “the headache of going back and forth,” says Von Horn. Often, what’s potentially an all-day email exchange can be solved with a 10-minute phone call.

The winner: Phone

Do you need a paper trail?

There are times in your career when you may need armor—against your boss, your colleagues, or your department, depending on the situation. Email can stand out here, because it provides a record of the conversations leading up to a decision. You can show your entire thought process through email and have it in a format that’s easily printed and used as proof of certain efforts, if necessary. And it’s not just for defense; emails can also help you highlight your deliverables, so when it’s performance-review time you can easily show accomplishments. 

The winner: Email

Are you avoiding conflict? 

Too often, email is a crutch for us. We use the screen as a barrier against hard decisions and hard conversations. But as you move along in your career, you can’t use the inbox as a way to avoid personal interactions.

So the next time there’s a tough conversation to have, and you’re weighing whether to call or email, Von Horn says, ask yourself what you would do if you were brave. That simple question will embolden you. And once you’ve picked up the phone a few times in hard situations, you’ll realize it’s not as bad as you thought.

The winner: Phone

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