We communicate with coworkers throughout the workday in a variety of ways. But sometimes it’s tough to know which channel is best for each message. Is it better to DM someone on a messaging platform or send an email? Post feedback in a public channel or send it privately? Put thoughts down in a shared doc or share them in a phone call?
There’s a good chance your default professional communication tool is email. According to the Harvard Business Review, workers spend 80% of their time communicating with their colleagues via email. Although it’s clearly a popular choice, it’s not always the best communication method for all scenarios.
But with so many communication channels available in the workplace, it might not always be obvious which mode is most effective. Here’s a guide to the different channels, how they may be used within your team, and how to choose the best one in the moment.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous communication
Before determining what kind of channel best suits your needs, it’s helpful to understand how you should engage with your coworkers to get your message across. We’ll break down two types of communication: asynchronous and synchronous.
It might sound complex, but understanding the differences between asynchronous and synchronous communication is fairly simple. Asynchronous means the communication does “not exist or occur at the same time.” An example is sending a letter. Synchronous, therefore, means “existing or occurring at the same time” and describes where parties are present and interacting simultaneously—for instance, in a phone call. Asynchronous communication doesn’t allow for an immediate response, while synchronous communication requires the processing of the information—followed by a response—in real time.
When deciding which communication channel to use, you’ll need to reflect on your company’s culture and your expectations about the message you’re communicating.
For example, let’s say you need to discuss a personal matter with your manager. Do they prefer an email that they can prepare a response for—and follow up with—on their own timeline, or do they encourage scheduling a one-on-one meeting? If it’s the latter, a synchronous communication method, like an in-person meeting, might be in order.
Types of communication channels
Company hub or intranet
Best for: Corporate announcements; annual reports; and organizational follow-ups
As an asynchronous communication channel that’s accessible to a wide audience, an intranet or online hub serves as a dashboard of high-level movement within an organization. It helps send a consistent message on a centralized and official platform.
It also keeps resources and information available across all levels within an organization.
Best for: Gathering feedback and/or ideas from multiple people; sharing updates and results with a team or inter-departmentally; and problem-solving that’s not urgent
Email is an asynchronous type of communication that sets the expectation that a recipient’s response isn’t needed immediately. Emailed messages can be directed to an individual or to a small group. For example, an email can be sent to a team about a new protocol process that’ll be in effect the following week.
This method is effective because it lets the sender share the same information with multiple people and gives recipients time to process the information and share their input. For greater success with this channel, learn more about business email etiquette.
Best for: Troubleshooting unplanned roadblocks; building rapport; discussing sensitive and/or private information; communicating difficult feedback; time-sensitive issues; and collaboration and coordination
Although there’s such a thing as “meeting burnout,” meetings are a vital communication channel in any organization. Whether you’ve set up an in-person meeting or video conference call, productive meetings can help teams iron out complex problems. It encourages on-the-spot brainstorming, collaboration, and even negotiation.
Meetings can also be beneficial for one-one-one interactions, especially to develop rapport and communicate performance feedback. Not all meetings are effective, however; mastering a meeting recap is a great way to ensure key information is retained.
Best for: Providing in-context status updates; building company culture; and collaborating between multiple people and teams
Messaging apps, like Slack, are more popular with more employees working remotely. Although messaging can feel distant at times, it offers users both asynchronous and synchronous communication options.
For example, a public channel can be used for ongoing weekly project updates across teams, or as a place to build interpersonal connections and chat about teammates’ weekends. Similarly, messaging or commenting features, within project management systems like Asana or Trello, are helpful for asking questions or providing feedback about a particular project or task.
Phone or video call
Best for: Anticipated back-and-forth clarification; problem-solving in an emergency situation; highly important messages; last-minute changes
If setting up a meeting isn’t possible, the next best option for synchronous communication might be a phone call. Phone calls are practical when conveying complex ideas or information that might generate many questions.
It’s also an ideal alternative to face-to-face communication, especially when communicating a sensitive or emotionally charged message. This is because, although a phone call might lack visual communication cues, it offers the benefit of tonal cues between callers.
The type of communication channel that’s right for any given situation depends on a few factors. By understanding the benefits of each channel, you’ll better understand which communication option is most effective for your goal.