Choosing the best workplace communication medium for your message

The message is the medium

I recently saw an interesting tweet which asked how people choose a particular piece of software to document and convey a given message.

"Does anyone know of a good write up on when to use Email vs Slack vs. Tettra vs. Google Docs?" - source

I left a quick comment but decided to spend a bit more time thinking about the challenge and how I think about how to make the right choice.

The reality is that we have more options than ever, so we need to be just as thoughtful about distribution as we do the message itself. As Marshall McLuhan might say, "the medium is the message."

In the rest of this post, I'm going to assume that the desire is to communicate something to the entire group of people (one-to-many communication).

A game of pros and cons

The first point I'd like to make is that each option has advantages and disadvantages. There is no perfect channel or tool.

I believe that these pros and cons are structural in nature, but an organization can try to establish norms to short-circuit the gravitation pull. It's possible, but requires effort.

1.) Email

  • Benefits - virtually everyone has it, serves as a centralized source of truth for external communications and many important internal comms. People spend a lot of time here as well, so there's a lot of usage.
  • Downsides - There's a high degree of variance in the level of noise. One person may receive a few emails/day, while another may receive hundreds.  As an executive, you probably want to make sure your message is seen by as many people as possible in the organization. Email probably makes you just a bit nervous.

2.) Workplace Chat

  • Benefits - Chat is arguably a more effective way to collaborate in real-time (quick back-and-forth conversations) and adds a layer of humanity (via feedback loops w/ emojis, etc). People tend to spend a lot of time in Slack as well, which drives up potential visibility.
  • Downsides - The level of noise is on par or potentially greater than email (as you can see more conversations flowing inside the company). While there are ways to configure notifications, this never-ending stream of information means that your message may have trouble landing with the intended audience. Similar to email, it's a noisy place, which should make you nervous.

3.) Wiki

  • Benefits - A wiki acts as a form of long-term memory for the organization, codifying everything from onboarding processes, to dev workflows, to company values. A major benefit to a wiki is that you can curate and prioritize the information as you see fit (unlike email). Additionally, a wiki is generally not glued to a date-stamp in the way that Slack/email is.
  • Downsides - there is a lot of activation energy required to write something "in stone" in a wiki. It can also be difficult to establish a culture of documentation (see research) and they typically suffer from low utilization without effort and constant reinforcement from managers/execs. Also, a wiki requires coordination and regular cleanup, otherwise the information can become stale.

4.) Ad-hoc documents (Word/Google Drive)

  • Benefits - more flexible than a wiki, less activation energy required to get started (as you don't need to think about where this document will fit in to the overall schema of the wiki hierarchy).
  • Drawbacks - It's easy to lose documents without establishing some structure (folders, schema, sharing). Where's that Google doc that you sent me earlier?

5.) Meetings

This wasn't mentioned in the original tweet, but I believe meetings are worth calling out as another potential channel for a particular message.

  • Benefits - A meeting is a rich format that activates more senses compared to written communication. There's also a faster feedback loop (reactions, body language) which can help you course-correct. Additionally, it's pretty easy to understand how the message is landing and how many people can absorb the information (i.e. - company-wide all-hands meetings will probably be absorbed better than an email).
  • Downsides - There is zero persistence and human memory is a bottleneck. Many people will leave the meeting and forget everything that was discussed. There's also a lot of communication variance depending on how well the speaker communicates (or rambles).

Which channel should I use?

I won't opine and offer super tactical suggestions here because each organization is different, but I'd encourage you to think about this in two ways:

  • You need to establish communication redundancy (Since each channel has pros and cons, you need to pair channels together to balance & reinforce the message in various modalities)
  • You should choose your primary channel using two key variables (importance, persistence)

I created a terrible looking graph below as a reference point for further discussion. The one missing piece in this 2x2 is app "usage". As I mentioned earlier, a wiki doesn't have nearly the same usage as email/Slack without some top-down influence and it probably never will.

Persistence vs. Importance

A few examples:

  • If you have an important message that needs to be received by the maximum number of people inside the company, it may be wise to have an all-hands meeting and complement it with written follow-up in a wiki.
  • If are chatting back and forth with a peer about tactical issue, that can be accomplished in Slack or via in-person water-cooler conversation.
  • If you'd like to avoid constantly repeating what you team worked on, perhaps you can send a weekly update that persists and complements your regular staff meetings (hint hint - that's why we built Friday).

In conclusion

I'd like to wrap up this post with a few final thoughts:

  • This is an early iteration and I'm sure there will be some issues and things I didn't consider when I wrote this.
  • It is the responsibility of an executive to create a communication architecture for the company, which means establishing norms around this stuff. This is worth codifying and reinforcing what channel is appropriate.
  • If you are an employee, I think it's worth your time to start building basic mental models around what communication channel should be used at a given time. In some ways, I think this is a digital form of "emotional intelligence."

If you have thoughts/feedback, feel free to yell at me on Twitter. Just remember, the medium is the message.