It’s both an alarming cautionary tale and a deeply familiar one: on April 17, 2010, John Guide, an engineer at BP, emailed his boss, David Sims, to complain about safety measures on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Like so many of the messages clogging up people’s inboxes, it was a long, disorganized email, jumping from technical questions to Guide’s concerns about career progression. It was also highly prescient. Buried within Guide’s musings were red flags that would come back to haunt the team, the company, and the entire Gulf Coast.
Nearly two years to the day after Guide sent his email, one of BP’s drilling rigs, the Deepwater Horizon, malfunctioned, spilling three million barrels of oil into a delicate ecosystem. It was one of the worst such disasters in history.
There’s much to be learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill—and one of the chief takeaways is a pertinent one: the hazard of an overreliance on text-based communication.
The problem with text
We’ve all received one (and are probably guilty of sending one or two ourselves): an ambiguous, possibly lengthy message that fails to make clear to its audience its most important points and any action it expects the recipient to take.
Perhaps there’s a sentence the sender intends to mean one thing—but without context, the recipient interprets something else altogether; perhaps the key points get lost in too many words; perhaps the whole thing gets buried in your backlogged inbox and you never even see it at all.
Instant messaging and texting channels relieve some of email’s biggest pain points. Slang and shorthand or poor punctuation, however, can still stand in the way effective communication. Case in point: the two phrases “let’s eat, grandma” and “let’s eat grandma” have two very different meanings—but could easily be sent interchangeably.
For all forms of text-based communications, researchers have observed a significant gap between the sender’s intended meaning and the recipient’s understanding. Though people think their messages are clear 90% of the time, as many as half of all text-based messages are misunderstood.
This has major implications for businesses. With the rise of remote work—and subsequent reduction of face-to-face contact among employees—workers have become more reliant on written formats for communicating with colleagues, external partners, and customers. But this reliance can lead to a host of challenges and blind spots.
Here are four reasons to encourage employees to get off the keyboard—and pick up the phone.
1. Greater clarity, less confusion
Whether it’s an inability to express tone, an errant comma, or challenges organizing vast amounts of information, email is rife with potential confusions. For example, if you’re delegating tasks, each written instruction creates a new opportunity for the employee to misunderstand what is being asked, and to get it wrong.
Truly, that’s not the employee’s fault—as the 50% misunderstanding rate above illustrates, it’s just the nature of the medium. Group emails, which can quickly devolve into long, convoluted threads, can be even more difficult to parse. Whether it’s a follow-up call to walk through an email or jumping on the phone when you’re unsure what the sender is trying to say, making a call can clear things up quickly.
2. Calling creates connection
Whether its building camaraderie among coworkers or a sense of trust with customers, a feeling of connection is a key enabler of better work relationships—and results. But text communication can be a barrier to relationship building for several reasons. Emails and IMs can feel impersonal and strip communications of important emotional cues. Some people use emojis to counter these risks, but this can actually make you seem less competent, research has shown.
Swapping the smiley face for the phone is a good way to promote better interpersonal bonds, experts say. In a series of studies conducted at the University of Austin, researchers consistently found that people who interacted by talking felt significantly more connected to each other than those who used text. (And for the phone-phobic among us, participants also said calling was much less awkward than they expected!)
3. Get to the heart of the problem faster
Email may be common, but it’s also extremely inefficient. First, you have to take the time to draft out your thoughts (and then read your note for clarity before hitting send). Then you need to wait for the recipient to open your note, and possibly wait even longer for them to read it thoroughly. If the correspondence requires clarification or discussion, each back and forth adds even more delay.
These inefficiencies can slow basic tasks, or even cause conversations to drop off the radar altogether. For critical and urgent matters, using the phone to pick up the pace can spell the difference between a fixable problem and an issue that becomes a major crisis.
4. The right medium for the message
For quick, simple communication, text sometimes does make the most sense. But there are also some key scenarios where delivering a message in writing is simply no substitute for using your voice. When it comes to expressing delicate information, such as when delivering feedback or a mea culpa, the ability to inject tone and emotion is important for softening the blow and projecting sincerity.
A return to phone calls
Not too long ago, communications experts were predicting the death of the phone call. But as the exodus from the office amid COVID-19—and predictions that the future of work will increasingly be distributed or remote—have shown, organizations need to rely on all of the communication tools in their possession, including the phone.
While text messaging and video conferencing undoubtedly play a role, businesses should not overlook the good ole phone call for injecting clarity, connection, and urgency to communications.
The optimal communication toolset allows employees to connect seamlessly via the channel that makes the most sense for the task at hand. RingCentral combines instant messaging, video, and phone into an all-in-one communications platform, allowing conversations to evolve naturally and making it easy to connect on the phone when talking makes the most sense.