I’ve been researching and writing on virtual meetings for almost twenty years. I’ve heard a lot of complaints, but the one that most amuses is, “I just sat through another meeting that could have been an email.”
Sure, it’s funny and looks great on a coffee mug. And we have so many meetings it might be lovely to have alternatives to yet another hour spent staring into a webcam hoping our faces don’t betray our misery. But are emails really an alternative to meeting as a group? If so, why do so many leaders wind up leading meetings on the topic anyway?
When I ask leaders about it, I get one answer far more frequently than any other. The response reveals a lot about both the team leader and the team members. Here is the top answer, and what both parties can do to make the situation less painful.
“I wouldn’t have to call a meeting if they actually read the email.” This is the number one answer by a mile. Leaders consistently say they send information in an email, but don’t think anyone reads it, so they wind up calling a meeting just to make sure the information was received and to answer any questions.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but if you’re the leader, here are some things you can do.
Request a response.
And not just a read receipt, but an actual answer from the team with either an acknowledgment that they read and understood the message, or any questions or comments they have as a result. Bonus points for posting the answers in a Slack or Teams channel rather than email, so that people can read the answers to other questions and save you all some work and time.
Write clearer emails.
Just because you sent a message doesn’t mean they read it. And even if they read it, there’s no guarantee they understood it the way you meant it. Take the time to be clear about not only the content of the message, but what the action items or main points are. One best practice here: Bulleted lists of items or points are preferable to lengthy paragraphs.
Offer ways to answer questions or clarify points that don’t require dragging everyone on to Zoom.
Not everyone is going to have the same questions. Some of your team will understand and take action, others won’t read it at all, and most will have some questions before your message can be truly understood. Include links to FAQs, or the company website, or a longer document in SharePoint where they can get the answers they need.
You send a lot of emails. Make it clear which ones require particular attention.
The dirty little secret of email is most of them don’t get opened. People get so many that they read the subject line, and possibly the first paragraph if it fits in the preview pane. If the information you’re sending is critical or requires action, don’t bury that at the end of a message. Put “Action Required,” in the subject line, or start your email with something akin to, “This message has priority. Please ______ after you’ve read it.”
As the sender of a communication, you have a lot of influence over whether people read it and take action, but very little direct control. If you are the team member or email recipient, you have a responsibility as well.
Acknowledge the message.
Your manager wants to know that you not only received the message, but understood it and plan to take the action requested. When she tells you something verbally, face to face, she can tell by your expression and body language that you understood or have questions. In email or IM, there is no way of gauging whether you “got it” or not. This is the main reason you wind up having to have a meeting. If you don’t want to get sucked into another meeting, let the boss know it’s unnecessary.
No matter how good a communicator your manager is, it’s almost impossible to craft a written message that doesn’t raise questions. They might be big (Why are we doing this?) or minor (when do you want it done?).
When someone requests you take action, it doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and do it (unless that’s the specific request). But the longer between sending the message and seeing results, the more the sender will start to wonder if it got read, or if anyone is going to do what’s asked. Eventually, paranoia sets in and they believe nothing will happen so, yup, it’s time to call a meeting.
All communication, verbal or written, contains three components: message sent, message received, message understood. If there isn’t evidence that all three stages have been completed, it’s likely the sender will reinforce their message or confirm understanding by either spending time following up, or saving time by calling a meeting.
Whether you’re the sender or the receiver, if you are tired of meetings that could have been emails, then make the most of the email. It’s simple, even if it doesn’t look cool on a coffee mug.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.