E-mail’s Impact on Workplace Relationships

My friend, Emily, prompted me to write this post and seek your input.  She’s looking for formal research on e-mail’s impact on workplace relationships, including the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of bosses who manage by e-mail.

Here’s the situation, and it’s one you might be familiar with.  Or at least know someone who is.

Managing by e-mail

A mutual friend of ours works in an office where the boss manages primarily by e-mail — giving directions and having electronic “conversations” with staff instead of talking with them face-to-face … even when their desks are only ten feet apart!  The result is a build up of resentment and misunderstanding that’s hard to overcome.

As Emily acknowledged, “It all comes down to using e-mail efficiently and choosing the appropriate medium for internal communication.  E-mail can be a great connector and communicator, but it can also break down relationships if it is used instead of personal contact.”

What we’ve found on this topic so far

Shawn Smith, a management & organizational development consultant, says in a white paper on workplace communication barriers:

“In this age of electronic communication, far too many managers use email as a substitute for personal interaction … While you should never seek to discuss sensitive or delicate matters electronically, even everyday business is better handled through personal contact when possible.  More direct contact will help create better rapport and trust.”

In Bosses: 10 Tips for Better E-Mails, written for Microsoft’s small business market, editor Monte Enbysk cites Vanderbilt management professor David Owens on managers’ use of e-mail:

“E-mail is an extremely valuable communication channel for today’s managers, but it can be abused if used carelessly or too much. [So] use e-mail as one channel of communication, but not your only one.  It’s fast and easy … But it also misleads bosses into thinking they can manage large groups of people through regular e-mails.  Use e-mail wisely, but don’t manage your company through it.”

Got research?

What I’ve learned in my own work with clients who want to improve internal communications is that too often there’s an over-reliance on e-mail at the expense of face-to-face communications.

I know lots of folks, including Emily, agree with me.  But to help her friend deal with this situation, we’re looking for formal research on the subject.  So if you know of any out there, please let us know.


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