To Meet Or Email -- That Is The Question

It’s no wonder that they are selling printed T-shirts with the slogan, “I just survived a meeting that should have been an email.” It’s a dreadfully common occurrence.

A client Diane recently shared this anecdote: She was awaiting a response to a proposed course of action from Drew, a senior leader. Assuming he has questions or concerns, she suggests they meet to discuss, and he agrees. They get on the call. After a few minutes of informal chit chat, he says, “I read your proposal—totally agree with it. I just need to check with Sasha on the timing for when we move forward.” She’s happy with the outcome but mystified about why he even accepted her invite. She commented, “That was DEFINITELY a meeting that could have been an email.”

Conversely, we’ve all seen zombie email threads that just won’t die. A typical scenario: Someone has what they think is a straightforward question. Surely it can be answered through a quick email; no need to call a time-consuming meeting. They send the email to five people, assuming one will respond. But then…two people respond with different answers. A third riffs on why they don’t agree with the first person. A fourth challenges the assumptions of the third... And then the “reply all’s” just start flying. By the time the fifth person checks email, there are 32 emails, the original question hasn’t been answered, hackles are up, there’s active disagreement between the people on the thread, and the “reply all’s” keep on coming. Finally, someone stops the madness with the inevitable: “Let’s hop on a quick call to resolve.” It was an email that should have been a meeting.

The amount of time wasted in meetings and in email is staggering. Our research indicates that 36% of people do not believe the volume of email they receive is appropriate for their role, and that 27% of all meeting time is wasted.

One simple solution to this egregious misuse of time is simply knowing when email is the right medium versus when a live discussion is required.

To instill that discipline in your organization, simply remind your team to use these simple rules to be EPIC collaborators.

1. Emotion: The minute a topic becomes “loaded,” email is no longer effective. We misread tone, overreact, decrease empathy and become oppositional, rather than collaborative. We no longer assume positive intent. Hold a high standard for yourself and others to “pick up the phone” as soon as the temperature starts to rise.

2. Purpose: Before calling a meeting, ask yourself this question: What will be different as a result of this meeting? If the answers is something like “people will know…” or “I will have shared…”—then your goal is simply to inform. In that case, chances are it could be accomplished with an email or other asynchronous technology, saving everyone precious time. In contrast if your answer is “solved a problem” or “mapped out our interdependencies,” a meeting is in order.

3. Interpersonal: Strong relationships fuel effective collaboration—and make work more fulfilling. When you’re on the fence about whether a meeting or email would be more effective, consider which would best strengthen relationships with your colleagues. Sometimes a funny, charming email can make their day. Sometimes, a virtual coffee is just what is needed. Integrate the importance of relationships into your daily decisions about when to schedule a meeting or send an email (or giphy!).

4. Complexity: People speed read emails—often missing critical details or essential data and then respond in ways that complicate, rather than resolve the issue. The more a topic is nuanced, the less likely it is to get resolved via email. If you find yourself explaining key details in the third paragraph of an email or sending it to more than four people, it’s likely that a meeting would be a faster, better way to move the work forward. In fact, a recent study suggests that a combination of individual think time and in-person meeting time is the best way to solve complex issues.

We’ve all been in meetings that could have been an email—and on email threads that should have been a meeting. Eliminate wasted time and energy by more strategically matching the medium to the situation.