Everyone likes to complain about meetings, and for good reason. Meeting bloat is a research-verified phenomenon, many leaders fail to run effective meetings, finding times that work for everyone can present a serious bottleneck, and serial Zoom meetings really do result in mental fatigue (particularly for certain groups).
For all these reasons, almost all of us have walked (or logged) out of a meeting muttering, “that meeting should have been an email.”That sentiment is understandable, but new research suggests that many times the reverse is actually true.
A recent study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showed that, for specific kinds of tasks at least, face-to-face conversations wildly outperform email. When it comes to making decisions, reaching consensus by email takes more than three times longer than reaching a conclusion in person.
How to make your work take three times as long
Ravi Gajendran, the study’s lead author and a professor of management at Florida International University, told the Wall Street Journal that the study was inspired by his own experiences reading and responding to colleagues’ essay-length emails. “I hate these long back-and-forth emails,” he explained to the paper.
To investigate whether this was just a personal quirk or if long email chains really are exhausting time sucks, Gajendran and colleagues conducted a series of experiments. In one they paired volunteers up and asked them to come to a decision about some common business problem, for instance coordinating a sales strategy. Some pairs completed the task via a face-to-face discussion, others did it over gmail.
Did the medium matter? An incredible amount, it turns out. When it came to the sales strategy task, pairs who spoke face to face took six minutes to reach a decision. Over email it took 20, meaning using email more than tripled the amount of time it took to reach consensus.
That sounds pretty bad for email, but that wasn’t even the only drawback of reaching decisions over email, Gajendran and his team found. Follow-up studies showed that professionals who spend more time on text-based communication also report feeling more drained and less productive. Long discussions over email are not just inefficient, they also appear to tire people out for hours afterwards.
Are you over relying on email?
These results are both clear and damning, but Gajendran stresses that email does have its uses. If your goal is simply information sharing, email is a fine choice. The problem arises when you attempt to use email for more complicated tasks like decision making or reaching consensus on complex topics. In these cases an email really can’t replace a face-to-face meeting without wasting an incredible amount of time.
It should also be noted that previous research indicates email is a lousy medium for other common work tasks too. One study found that, when it comes to persuading others, we’re a whopping 34 times more likely to get a yes if we ask face-to-face rather than over email. Other research shows we feel more connected to others when we chat live rather than over email or text (it also found people wildly overestimate the expected awkwardness of real-time interactions.) Communication experts caution against giving tough feedback over email as it’s often misinterpreted.
All of these findings should nudge entrepreneurs to consider whether they’re over-relying on email. Yes, typing is often easier than getting everyone in the same (real or virtual) room and offers instant gratification, but failing to speak face-to-face (or even over a good, old fashioned phone call) will cost you time, connection, and clarity in the long run.