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by Jason Fry | March 10, 2009

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Email and instant messaging have conquered distance, allowing office workers across the globe to communicate and collaborate quickly and cheaply. But electronic communication isn't just used by colleagues on different continents or floors. Sometimes it's used for mundane matters by people who sit close enough together that they could carry on an honest-to-goodness real-life conversation without raising their voices.

What's wrong with these people? Why have they traded talking for typing? Don't they feel bad for contributing to an office situation that makes that of"Bartleby the Scrivener" look relatively healthy?

It's all too easy to parody such strange behavior and cluck over it as a depressing example of 21st-century cubicle-farm alienation. But could it be that sometimes -- and I emphasize sometimes -- there's a method to this particular brand of madness?

There are a host of obvious reasons people who sit close together may choose to communicate electronically: They're too busy to get up (or at least think they are); they're too lazy to get up; one or the other is on the phone; they have something sensitive to discuss but don't want to attract attention by disappearing together; or they're being gossipy, snarky or seditious. (These days any sort of scene or big news in an office is followed by a period of intense quiet broken by frantic typing.)

It's a clichi that email and IM bridge distance; what's rarely discussed is that they're also very effective for creating it. The ability to create distance is neither good nor bad: Any management expert would criticize a manager who preferred to email bad news because he didn't want to look an employee in the eye. But a manager who used a discreet IM to defuse a volatile situation or sent an email to give a prickly employee time to reflect on criticism might deserve praise. Depending on the situation, electronic communications can be a useful method of papering over hostilities, a cowardly way to criticize, or a sneaky way to make a rival supply the email-trail noose for his own hanging.

Most offices have at least one antisocial person who seems to prefer electronic communications to the messiness of the real thing and a couple of less-than-collegial colleagues who get along better remotely than they do face-to-face. But what about when colleagues who get along perfectly well and are discussing something that's neither sensitive nor snarky wind up typing instead of talking?

Most people would say that's a sign that an office has developed bad communications habits. And they might be right -- but not always.

Consider this case (which, it just so happens, is quite similar to something that happened in our own office recently): Two colleagues are discussing something low-impact and relatively noncontroversial, and hammer out the details over 15 minutes of email back-and-forth. That seems crazy: Why take 15 minutes when two minutes of actual conversation would have done the trick? But those 15 minutes weren't exclusively devoted to this one email conversation -- our two colleagues spent that time juggling a host of other tasks. A face-to-face conversation would be a lot more efficient than email, but at the cost of letting all those other balls drop -- and momentum is everything in multitasking.

Now, back to that low-impact, relatively noncontroversial topic. What if, in addition to the above, it's an item that others need to be made aware of? Now, in addition to two people having to spin the wheels of their multitasking engines back up, one of those people is going to have to type up an email summarizing what was decided in the face-to-face conversation, instead of just forwarding the concluded email thread.

And there's a final wrinkle. Much is made of the difficulty of conveying nuance and tone through electronic communications, which can lead to misunderstandings. That's true. But it's equally true that our memories are faulty. Email creates a record of what's been said (as does IM, provided you cut and paste), which can prevent the need to have another face-to-face conversation days or even hours after the first one. Can email be inefficient and impersonal? Sure. But it doesn't forget.

But don't silently celebrate just yet, office sociopaths: The case outlined above is the exception that proves the rule. If you're close enough that the person you're emailing uses the plonk of your RETURN key as a cue to look for the little Outlook envelope, best think carefully about whether you should be typing instead of talking. The machismo of multitasking shouldn't mean subjects that need a more-thorough discussion don't get one. Some colleagues work better or feel more comfortable with a task if they can actually talk about it, and it's unwise to force them into an electronic exchange. At the very least, they deserve an invitation to chat if they prefer. And the habits of key employees often shape an entire workplace more than those employees realize; what works for a few may become the de facto office culture, even if it doesn't work for most.

Keep those things in mind, however, and sometimes you'll be able to hold your head high even if you never leave your cube, snug in the knowledge that sometimes talk isn't cheap.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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