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Two professional women speaking frankly at work talking about company culture

Special Delivery: When in Doubt, Communicate Personally at Work

Recently, several large companies grabbed headlines when internal communications from senior leaders went viral. The CEOs were telling employees they were being let go or needed to return to work in the office.

Frustrated employees felt the messages’ tone and delivery over videoconferencing were cold and impersonal. They captured the incidents on video and shared them on social media. And internal memoranda were leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

A strong company culture helps ensure your statements are appropriately delivered and received. When employees trust their managers, they interpret the message as intended, even if they are working from home. It also helps to have shared parameters around internal communication. Based on the announcement and its intent, some forms of communication are better than others.

Phone, Meeting Room, Email, or Zoom?

Once upon a time, your communication was in-person or on the phone. Now, you also need to consider email, videoconferencing, text, and communication channels such as Microsoft Teams or Slack. The message will dictate the best medium.

Face-to-face Conversation

Now that many employees have returned to the office, they can once again stop by a colleague's desk or catch them in the breakroom. This has always been an ideal way to get a quick response to a question while building a relationship with some small talk.

But the greatest benefit to an in-person discussion, according to Dr. Tessa West, is that it allows us to read the nonverbal components of communication. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture help shape our understanding of a message. These nonverbal cues are also evident on a video call. Yet video may not fully capture the team dynamics.

A face-to-face conversation remains the best way to communicate difficult news. It enables the speaker to gauge the recipient’s understanding and allows for questions. When in-person is not feasible, a phone call followed by an email is the next best option.

Video Calls

Videoconferencing is effective in relaying a message to people in various locations. It's also useful for collaboration. A video call displays facial expressions missing in email or on the phone.

Seeing other parties’ nonverbal responses are helpful when sharing good or bad news. As with in-person meetings, the speaker can repeat or reframe her message if she senses that the audience does not understand. David Johnson, principal analyst at Forrester Research, noted: “The richer and more nuanced the conversation needs to be, the more case there is for making a video call.”

Videoconferencing has replaced in-person town halls with mixed success. It can be challenging to motivate employees and convey emotions over Zoom. Look into the lens of the computer camera to simulate making eye contact. View the gallery of faces to remember to show empathy to your audience. While they appear the size of postage stamps, they are your colleagues and employees.

As noted in The Wall Street Journal, Zoom clips can be recorded and shared far beyond their intended audience. Therefore, choose your words carefully and mind your facial expressions. When it’s necessary to communicate bad news, it’s better to call each affected person. It’s also helpful to follow up with an email summarizing the details of your conversation.

Apple CEO Tim Cook observed,

“For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other. Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

He then asked employees to start returning to the office.


Meetings have come under attack recently as surveys have shown the startling amount of time devoted to them. According to a November 2019 survey by consultancy Korn Ferry, 67 percent of workers claim that excessive meetings kept them from doing their jobs.

Scheduled meetings became more prevalent during the pandemic as people could no longer pop into one another's workstations to get a quick update. In the interest of keeping employees informed and engaged, Zoom meetings were overscheduled. Yet not all facilitators effectively use video technology, and not everyone needs to be in all the meetings. Forbes contributor Shani Harmon’s research found that 27% of all meeting time is wasted.

Meetings aren’t inherently bad. But the organizer needs to think through their purpose and goals. If the objective is to share information, use email. But if you want employees to brainstorm and build ideas off one another, schedule a meeting. The Harvard Business Review published an interesting chart to help groups assess whether their goals are best met through meetings.

Consider creative meeting alternatives. Some leaders forego in-person business updates and instead provide their employees with prerecorded messages. This allows people to listen during their commutes or during a more convenient time.

Phone Calls

Picking up the phone remains one of the most expedient ways to get an answer to a question. It works well for complex topics that need time to explore. It enables a give-and-take between the participants to ensure understanding. When face-to-face is not possible, and you need to share a difficult message, it’s your best alternative. However, you miss facial expressions and body language, which are key to reading how the information was received.

Unlike videoconferencing, there are no unnecessary stimuli from a person’s background. There is no need to stress over one’s appearance. The biggest impediment is that the person you are calling may be unavailable.


Email is probably the most used business tool. It’s effective when information needs to be shared and retained, as most people save their emails. It’s ideal for attaching documents. It can be sent at any time. Yet it’s not optimal for getting input on an issue or documents from several people. Who hasn’t cringed at the dreaded “reply all”?

Getting several people’s perspectives is an example of when email doesn’t work. Forbes’ Harmon notes,

“The more a topic is nuanced, the less likely it is to get resolved via email. If you find yourself explaining key details in the third paragraph of an email or sending it to more than four people, it’s likely that a meeting would be a faster, better way to move the work forward.”

Email cannot convey the emotion behind a message. Yet it is frequently used instead of a phone call in uncomfortable situations. Employees may be tempted to send an email and avoid what they fear could be conflict. It’s particularly important in these situations to coach them on the importance of face-to-face communication. You may choose to role-play with them how to have the conversation in a way that might increase the odds of success.

It is tempting to send an email instead of talking face-to-face when involved in a difficult position with a customer. Instead, think of ways to conduct the discussion in person that could increase the chance for a positive outcome. Even if you dread the conversation, customers will appreciate your willingness to talk to them instead of hiding behind an email.

Text and Message Channels

Texting has become an accepted business communication tool. A survey by Text Request found that 80 percent of professionals are using text at work. Text can be effective for a short message but avoid it for communicating very good or bad news.

Similarly, sending messages in applications like Microsoft Teams and Slack is ideal for asking quick questions and getting task updates. These messages should be short and easy to skim. Direct messaging isn’t recommended for long conversations, discussing nuanced topics, making time-consuming requests, or giving negative feedback. These issues are better handled over the phone or by videoconferencing.

The nature of texts and direct messages makes them appropriate when you need a rapid response. If an immediate answer is not required, send an email so the recipient doesn't feel they must drop everything and respond.

The Wall Street Journal offers a graphic to help you determine whether your message should be conveyed via a chat platform like Slack, email, one-on-one phone calls, or video meetings. Your company may choose to adopt a policy around how and when to share information.

The Importance of Trust

Effective communication, regardless of the medium, is difficult. We interpret others’ comments and writings through our lens. When you know the sender, you “know where they’re coming from” and understand if the message isn’t conveyed perfectly. With strangers, we may be more likely to misinterpret their meaning.

When you need to convey difficult messages to your team, it is beneficial if your company culture is one in which employees:

  1. Act with integrity. Employees tell the truth and are committed to doing the right thing in every action and every decision.
  2. Speak straight. Employees speak honestly in a way that helps to make progress. They raise tough issues directly with those involved when necessary for team success.
  3. Listen to understand. Employees do more than just stop speaking. They give each other their undivided attention and suspend judgment.
  4. Assume positive intent. Employees give one another the benefit of the doubt. They set aside their preconceived notions and judgments.
  5. Invest in relationships. Employees prioritize getting to know each other on a more personal level. Their strong relationships enable the team to come together to work through difficult issues and challenging times.

These behaviors help build a culture of trust. With trust as a foundation, team members are more likely to better receive even the toughest news.

To learn more about building a culture of trust, visit Our website provides resources, including tip sheets, webinars, and podcasts. And to learn how CultureWise can help you transform your business, contact one of our specialists.