Face-to-face communication might be 34x more effective

Face-to-face communication

Because we’re all heads down in mobile devices so much of the day (“millennial mindset”), one of the standard complaints of the last few years has been the decline of face-to-face communication. (Heck, you could argue “communication in the workplace” as a whole has been a complaint for a while now.)

People love to bitch about this at work, and usually the people who complain the most about it never use face-to-face communication themselves. They email everything or hide behind portals (Workday) or boards (Slack, Trello).

That’s not as surprising as you might think, actually. We force people to collaborate at work, but a lot of people don’t want to collaborate. They just want to be heads down doing their stuff, and hopefully getting rewarded for it. I sometimes felt this way in jobs. Collaborative teams and all-hands meetings are useless when everyone just says “Well, you know, grinding along on my stuff…” I’ve sat in a lot of those meetings.

Plus, work can be emotionally exhausting. People tend to add to that, as opposed to making it better. (Some people, of course, do make it better.) If you’re super stressed at work as is, why do all this face-to-face communication and potentially make that worse or more stressful? Just fire off an email, yea?

But we all know email is a giant mess. It usually muddies the waters more than it clears/parts them. And now we have some research on how big a mess it all is.

Amazing stat about why you need face-to-face communication

New research on persuasiveness over email, then summarized here on Harvard Business Review. Ultimately, this study showed that face-to-face communication was 34x — yes, thirty-four times — more effective than emailed ones at soliciting action. Here’s the money paragraph:

If your office runs on email and text-based communication, it’s worth considering whether you could be a more effective communicator by having conversations in person. It is often more convenient and comfortable to use text-based communication than to approach someone in-person, but if you overestimate the effectiveness of such media, you may regularly—and unknowingly—choose inferior means of influence.

That right there is the trade-off of the modern age.

What is the trade-off of the modern age?

We trade “superior means of influence” — which would be good and productive for our workplaces — for “this is easier,” because that’s nice for us. Individual needs beat firm needs, which I’m fine with — firms don’t care about us.


The interesting thing at this whole intersection is “busy vs. productive.” This idea of face-to-face communication vs. email underscores that whole deal. If you used more face-to-face communication, you’d be more productive — but it’s harder. On the other hand, if you use email, you can be busier — and it’s easier. The goal of most workplaces is to create some type of pathway to relevance for the employee, even if no one wants to admit that. In a Knowledge Economy, some work becomes creative/subjective. It’s hard to find a path to relevance that way, but you can be seen as relevant/important by being busy and heaping tons of stuff on your plate. In most offices, quantity almost always trumps quality. Impressions mean more than leads that became sales to some execs. It’s all because we want to be seen as doing a lot and being responsible for a lot, even if what’s on our plate is insignificant.

And that’s where we lie on face-to-face communication. It should matter and could drive more productivity and clarity about priorities, but instead it falls down to something convenient and easy that allows us to hit the crack pipe of busy.

Ever had a manager who was good at face-to-face communication?

Ted Bauer

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