The way we communicate is changing. Everywhere, you see groups of people with their heads down as they use mobile devices to send text messages, read Facebook statuses, and view videos and images.
But the smart phone isn’t just for watching funny cat videos. Executives and employees alike increasingly are using mobile devices to conduct business from virtually anywhere, stay in contact with clients and one another, extending their workdays into the evening hours.
“In most organizations today, email is the main form of communication, but that’s only been in the past few years,” said Marcel Robles, professor of corporate communication and technology in the College of Business and Technology at Eastern Kentucky University.
Email transformed business communication, making it quicker to communicate with clients and colleagues, transfer data and make decisions. But text messaging takes convenience a step further, said Robles, who teaches strategic business communication at EKU and serves on the board of the International Association for Business Communication.
“We want quick and easy, and text messaging is the quickest,” she said. “We would rather text message or email than pick up the phone and talk to someone. And it’s interesting because we went from in-person to telephone to voicemail to email and now text message, and it’s kind of like we’ve come full circle. Before the telephone, there was the telegraph, which was … a text message.”
Convenient and immediate, text messages also allow users to skip the niceties and get down to business, Robles said.
Although there is debate about whether text messaging is an appropriate form of business communication, use of the technology isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Some companies have rules restricting the ways employees communicate with clients or specific record-keeping requirements that make texting an inefficient way to interact with business associates.
In other businesses and industries, however, the decision whether to text is simply a matter of preference. Some decide the method is too informal.
Employees of Kirkpatrick & Co. in Lexington do not communicate with clients via text because it does not convey their importance to the farm brokerage firm, according to Zach Davis, president and principal broker.
“Our clients and colleagues deserve face time or one-on-one phone conversations,” Davis said. “Our clients expect and deserve our full attention – not just a text message.”
If a client prefers texting, Kirkpatrick & Co. employees accommodate that, he said, but as a general rule, they speak to clients over the phone or in person.
Staff members occasionally use text messages internally, but the company discourages texting with potential clients.
“If that means taking five minutes to have a conversation with an individual involved on a particular deal, that is what we do,” Davis said. “It may take a little more time than just sending a quick text, but a conversation will always result in a clearer understanding of the situation for all involved, which most benefits those we represent.”
Good tool for many situations
Face-to-face interaction is still the most effective form of communication, Robles said, because of non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.
“Losing that is a big disadvantage of communicating from behind the screen,” she said. “However, one of the pros is that people will give you more information and they’re more candid when they can hide behind the screen.”
Text messages may seem more informal, but when used properly they can be an effective tool for building and maintaining business relationships, Robles said.
Nathan Maddocks, president of GXBILT Inc., said his staff routinely uses text messaging to communicate internally and externally.
“We utilize this tool in our approach and take advantage of easy and convenient means of communication,” he said. “We are a brokerage company based in Lexington, and also work in Italian equipment imports.”
The ability to communicate via email or text using mobile phones allows professionals to feel they are in control, said Brandi Frisby, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in interpersonal communications and recently taught a class on social media.
“There’s the feeling that this constant contact allows us to think about what we’re saying, edit what we’re saying and be more effective in our communication,” she said.
Many people are braver when they communicate via text message or email.
“They feel like there’s a little bit of protection for them, so they may be more willing to make a pitch to a client or ask for a raise,” Frisby said. “They may be more willing to stand up for themselves or be more assertive if that’s the need.”
“We love text message because of control,” Robles agreed. “We have control over the interruption. We have control over when we want to respond.”
Linda Cook, owner of the Cecilia, Ky.-based writing service Frontrunner Text Creations, said she texts because she is shy and can communicate better in writing.
“Although I very much enjoy helping people promote their businesses through press releases and websites, I myself am painfully shy and always afraid of bothering people. I feel texting is less intrusive than calling,” she said. “Plus, I think better in writing and feel I can write a stronger message than I could speak.”
Feeling more productive … and disrupted
Communicating via mobile devices has allowed employees become more productive. And less.
“There’s something about all of this technology and communication that makes us feel more productive,” Frisby said. “At the same time, we also struggle with how all of this constant email and text messages are interrupting our ability to feel productive.”
With mobile communication, we can text if we’re running late or remind someone who is trying to reach us that we are in a meeting. Oftentimes a deal can be brokered at 10 o’clock Monday night instead of 10 o’clock Tuesday morning.
But working after hours disrupts our home-work balance, said Dr. Manju Ahuja, a professor in the University of Louisville College of Business who, along with Dr. Meera Alagaraja, is studying the effects of mobile technology use.
Messages from a variety of sources – even during work hours – impair our ability to focus, she said.
In knowledge-based career fields, workers are interrupted every three minutes, Ahuja said, and it takes a typical knowledge worker as many as eight interrupted minutes to resume productive thinking after a significant interruption.
“There is no time for people to think,” Ahuja said. “We are constantly bombarded with interruptions.”
Her study seeks to develop a better understanding of how mobile interruptions influence inner and outer well-being, which affect employee engagement, performance and creativity.
Because most employees use smart phones, some employers have come to expect staff members to be available outside of work hours. That’s especially true when the employer is paying for the phone or data plan, Ahuja said.
“The modern workplace is characterized by use of mobile technologies and ensuing interruptions at all times, accompanied by increased pressure on employees to be available at all times and to respond to inquiries and requests within a short amount of time, as well as to coordinate joint action with other members,” Ahuja wrote in her successful grant application to fund her study. “Employees experience disconnectedness, disengagement and burnout, leading to lower commitment and higher turnover. Shifting identities, blurring of work and personal life boundaries elevate and amplify these effects.”
Robles encourages employees to resist the urge to answer non-emergency work-related email and text messages after the workday has ended.
Proper use of text messaging
The first rule is simple: Use good judgment. Before initiating text communication, determine the client’s preferred method of contact. Just because you can text does not mean you should.
Text messages should be shorter than other communiques but professional nonetheless.
Make sure your text message follows the Cs of good communication: be clear, correct, concise and courteous, Robles said. Consider the audience and purpose of the message.
“The purpose and audience is going to help you decide what medium to use,” she said. “Is it a positive message or a routine question? If so, a text message might be fine. If it is bad news or a negative message, a text message might not be appropriate. It may need a phone call or face-to-face conversation.”
“People prefer a personal discussion,” she said in the book. “If that is not possible, the telephone is the next best alternative. Also, don’t give negative feedback or quit your job in a text.”
“But you can send good news via text,” Patcher added. “This way the person receives the information immediately.”
The business phone is not confined to the office, she writes. “There are many more ways to use your cell phone … and more ways to blunder.”
Whatever the format, messages to clients and colleagues are an impression of who you are. Before sending any type of communication, consider whether it accurately represents you and your company.
“If it is detailed, has proper punctuation and grammar, and I’ve proofread it, it says I have an eye for detail,” Robles said.
Tips for cell phone users
From Barbara Patcher, author of “Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success.”
♦ Speak softly. “If the people around you are glaring at you, chances are, you need to lower your voice.”
♦ Don’t use a Bluetooth headset in the office.
♦ Put your phone on vibrate when you go into meetings or other business gatherings.
♦ Never text under the table during a meeting or presentation. It’s noticeable and distracting and rude.
♦ Choose a normal ringtone.
♦ Be careful of changing meeting times or venues in a text. The potential attendees may not check their phones in time.
Tips from Pachter:
♦ Add the email address last, after you have finished writing and proofreading.
♦ Choose a good subject line.
♦ Make sure you selected the correct recipient.
♦ Do not come across as sounding abrupt.
♦ Use a salutation and a closing.
♦ Use a signature block.
♦ Proofread every message.
♦ Use a professional email address.
♦ Make messages easy to read.
♦ Be cautious with humor.
♦ Think twice before hitting “Reply All.”