E-mail communication — in and out of the workplace — has exploded, taking over all other methods as the primary way people communicate. Whereas five years ago, people were more likely to pick up the phone and call someone when they needed an answer, e-mail is now by far the most popular way to exchange information.

In a business setting, e-mail saves time and certainly has the capability to streamline communications and operations. When written and structured effectively, e-mail has the power to improve business relationships and partnerships. However, there are some situations in which e-mail may not be the best way to communicate, and it can actually create additional problems in the workplace.

Beyond Writing Problems
It is likely most building service contractor executives communicate via e-mail with employees, coworkers and associates alike. More businesspeople need to understand the basics of e-mail etiquette, says Michelle Howe, Internet business communications expert and president, Internet Word Magic, Irvine, Calif.

“In the workplace, people are not communicating with each other as well,” Howe says. “People can’t write very well and because of that they’re not able to express their ideas clearly.”

There are written communication issues dealing with punctuation, grammar, structure and tone. E-mail communication does have rules that should be learned and followed, she says.

“It’s not just being able to have grammar skills and writing a sentence,” Howe says. “It’s being able to communicate your ideas, your thoughts, and put it into a way that someone else can understand it.”

Businesspeople are well-versed in communication, but communicating via e-mail isn’t the same as doing so through the phone or even memos. Howe’s basic guidelines include using descriptive subject lines, short sentences and short paragraphs.

Each generation has its strengths and weaknesses that come into play when addressing e-mail etiquette.

The significant generational differences when it comes to writing, word processing and technology skills are becoming more obvious as an extremely tech-savvy generation of people enters the workforce. An emerging problem is the way younger, recent graduates communicate.

“The generation of user who grew up on instant messaging and text messaging, they are so ingrained into using brief messages that they don’t often provide enough information to represent the company well,” such as using abbreviations or even forgetting to close the message with a name, says Helen Kennedy, president of Kennedy Consulting Services, Union City, Calif.

Then again, she adds, some business communication, like that done with Blackberrys and other mobile devices, is brief by design.

Misinterpreted messages happen all too often, underlining the importance of using the proper tone when writing business e-mails. Voice inflection, expression and body language constitute a majority of face-to-face communication, Howe says, but e-mails rely completely on tone. Tone must remain professional.

Kennedy uses the term “flaming” to describe e-mails that are harsh, critical or just inappropriate. Flaming in any business setting is a bad idea, she says, reminding contractors that as private as they think e-mail exchanges are, anything can be forwarded.

“If you wouldn’t want to see it in a newspaper headline, don’t write it in an e-mail,” she says.

Those in upper management especially need to understand how to use e-mail to communicate effectively, Howe says, because they’re judged more critically by the way they communicate.

“There’s certain ways you can write things that make it easy to get the answer you need. And if they’re aware of how to express themselves in an e-mail, they’re going to build trust with their potential customer or vendor and that makes them look good,” she says.

Not Always Ideal
E-mail has become the default method of communication for many in the workplace, Howe says. It’s great for announcements and other one-way communication, for the quick exchange of information that does not require explanation and for keeping a record of communication. But some circumstances clearly warrant voice or face-to-face communication. In fact, Howe says, e-mail can be one of the worst ways to communicate.

For instance, if an immediate answer is needed, pick up the phone to facilitate a faster exchange. While an e-mail might be answered within minutes, it could potentially take days to hear back from someone. Also, when dealing with sensitive topics or those that cannot be concisely communicated, it is best to speak on the phone or meet in person.

Because e-mail has changed the way we work, it’s hard to find a balance between methods of communicating, Kennedy says.

It’s nice to have a written record of exchanges, Kennedy says, “but you can’t really completely lose touch with that personal relationship you have with people.”

Company executives also need to set an example internally and convey to employees that e-mail communication can mean the difference between success and failure in today’s business environment. Proper e-mail communication between employees and customers can help retain and bring in more business, while poor e-mail communication can ruin relationships, Howe says.

Both experts recommend establishing e-mail communication rules and properly training staff to understand those rules. Dealing with the issue proactively can help prevent embarrassing incidents, lost revenue, terminations and even lawsuits.

Basic E-mail Guidelines

Michelle Howe, president of Internet Word Magic, offers these tips for
mistake-free e-mails:

  • Limit your message to one idea;
  • Use direct approach: put the most important information first;
  • Use descriptive subject lines;
  • Use paragraphs to separate your thoughts;
  • Limit paragraphs to six sentences;
  • Use short sentences;
  • Be concise;
  • Avoid all capital letters, as it is likened to yelling at someone;
  • Be watchful of your tone; and
  • Avoid writing regrettable messages.