A finely crafted e-mail can be a work of art, but it can also work against you. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and George Mason University put more than 200 students in groups to perform teamwork tasks and found that those working face-to-face showed greater cooperation than those communicating through instant messaging or videoconferencing, who were more likely to lie. When interacting face-to-face, "you're getting more information from the people around you," says coauthor Gregory Northcraft, which "is allowing you to trust them more." Northcraft, associate dean of faculty at the University of Illinois College of Business, says that digital messages and phone conversations are better "supplements" than "substitutes" for speaking in person.
Though online messages can provide a handy written record of conversations, Northcraft says that employees who interact in person also feel more engaged with one another and the work. Only 7 percent of communication that deals with feelings or attitudes is conveyed in the words used, with the rest of the meaning coming from tone or nonverbal cues, according to oft-cited communications research from noted University of California-Los Angeles psychologist Albert Mehrabian.
"We miss a lot when we only look at the words," says Sue Johnston, founder of It's Understood Communication, an Ontario-based company that offers tools and learning programs for businesses and individuals hoping to brush up on their interpersonal office skills. The BlackBerry, says Johnston, "is also a telephone."
On the other hand, E-mail is an efficient way to convey detailed information. And because it can reduce some of the competitive tendencies among men in different branches of a firm, E-mail conversation can be more effective for them, according to research from University of Alabama social psychologist Rosanna Guadagno. When it comes to communication among women, Guadagno says, E-mail tends to "separate" them unless the give-and-take reveals some common interests or recipients are able to meet the messengers in person.
"Every once in a while you need to re-engage," says Northcraft. So the next time you think about firing off a quick "what's up?" message to your coworker down the hall, you might want to just walk there instead.
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