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Harvard Business Online

Don't Forget To Use the Phone

Posted on Work Smarter: October 29, 2009 3:56 PM

The first dot-com I worked at back in 2000 didn't survive, but one bit of office culture from that experience has stuck with me. In meetings, if a discussion veered too far from the agenda, someone would say, "Let's take this offline."

Today I work at home, managing projects and communicating with co-workers and editors primarily via email. Many of those exchanges could seriously benefit from literally "taking it offline"—by picking up the phone. Still, my tendency is to quickly type up a response and hit send.

Email's benefits are hard to resist. It's asynchronous, so you're not interrupting someone or putting them on the spot. It's an efficient way to get information across without all the overhead of a meeting. It's the corporate CYA mechanism, creating a digital he-said, she-said trail that you can refer back to later. So, email must also make us more productive…right?

Wrong—well, sometimes. In an age of email overload, there are situations when a phone call can get things done faster and better than an email.

If you're looking for a quick answer to a question, a phone call (when the person on the other end picks up) yields an immediate response, but an email could languish unread in ten inboxes. When an exchange involves several back-and-forths, days' worth of email could be avoided with a five-minute call. While some people cringe at the interruption of a ringing phone (and I count myself in that group), an effective call will save both parties time and avoid misunderstandings. As for the lack of transcript, when decisions are made on the phone, you can always sum up the conversation in a follow-up email.

There's an added bonus to using the phone, too. A phone call creates personal bonds in ways email cannot. You can't hear a person's tone of voice in an email. If an email thread gets tense or contentious, a phone call can defuse frustration and avoid misunderstandings. Some people just don't communicate as well in writing as they do verbally. An email about a sensitive topic can come off awkward, vague, and full of business-speak; pick up the phone and you'll get a clear and simple explanation. In addition, you'll often get more information and "behind the scenes" insights that a co-worker won't share in an email, precisely because there is no record.

Embracing the telephone can also help you manage your time. It signals to your co-workers that a call is the best way to get a hold of you when something is important—and helps to downplay the expectation that you're constantly checking your email, prepared to respond instantly. My editor here at Harvard Business tells me, "I've gone so far as to post the below out-of-office message when I'm up against a tight deadline:

"On deadline and checking e-mail sparingly…please call if urgent: 617-555-1212. If not, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you!"

Technophiles with a webcam and access to Skype or any instant messenger with video capabilities can even use video-conferencing to conduct their calls. Seeing someone's face, even on your computer screen, makes calls even more personal and productive.

Are you moving toward using the phone more or less during your workdays? What are the best (and worst) parts of calling someone instead of emailing? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani is the founding editor of, a daily blog on software and personal productivity. Gina also authored a book based on the website which is in its second edition: Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better (Wiley, 2008). Her articles have appeared in Popular Science, Wired, Women's Health, PC World, and Macworld magazines.

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