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Electronic Mail and Media for 2020 and Beyond

As we’ve talked about many times in this column, technology has transformed the life sciences in more radical ways than in most industries. Many of us went from bench work to office work. Along the way, our work became more streamlined and sometimes more complex, no doubt because of all kinds of
electronic communication happening via computers, smartphones, and other personal devices.

by Mark Lanfear
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"Ideally, electronic communication should be used to supplement face-to-face communication"

The goal of this column is to highlight our use and perception of electronic communication, specifically text-based electronic communication, including email, instant messaging, text messaging, and the social media networks, and how it impacts our interpersonal professional relationships in the life sciences industry. I would suggest that knowing how electronic communication affects our relationships will ensure that we use electronic communication to its fullest potential and in the most effective way.

The advent of electronic communication, facilitated in countless forms by the Internet, is now changing the life sciences and all the work that we do. Electronic mail, or email, was one of the first changes in how companies now use technology to communicate with individuals. The ability to release information to many different people at once, without calling a meeting or requiring the printing of the materials, turned into a money- and time-saving practice. Some immediate positives of email were the speed of delivery and the reduction of paper costs. In recent years, more specifically pertaining to our industry, there’s been a dramatic change in how scientists collaborate, thanks to both the global nature of work and value drivers of life sciences companies, which can now do cloudbased business to meet the challenges of cost and talent constraints.

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But is the cure better than the disease? Now some people may spend more time on email than on actual work. The sound of a new email being received and the tendency to check email frequently has led to distracted workers. A poorly written email can lead to confusion rather than clarity in the workplace. Is the potential for great scientific discoveries in 2020 and beyond being lost in electronic translation?

There’s no doubt that newer and faster ways of communication mean scientists can more freely work with one another with greater efficiency and speed. We have all realized that goals can be enhanced by collaboration with others across the campus or the globe, thanks to all this modern communication. And if faster is better, then an “instant” message must be better than an email!

Instant messaging has been around since the 1990s. It was primarily used by people to communicate while doing academic work, to relay shorter concepts. Businesses realized the potential of real-time communication at the computer between employees and implemented it. Instant messaging, or IM, has allowed people to reach other people without having to use the phone. Many professionals are at their workstations communicating via IM rather than walking a few steps or picking up the phone.

Then there are the little details of modern communication that can also wreak havoc on this experience. The little blunders that we’ve probably all experienced and wish we could take back the moment we hit the “send” button. Whether we’re writing an email, text, or tweet, we can all relate to the times when we’ve lapsed in our use of etiquette when it comes to modern communication.

Google “email etiquette,” in fact, and you’ll quickly figure out that everyone else is grappling with the same issues, no matter what the industry. Email has been called “pervasive,” “pernicious,” “gut-wrenching,” etc., depending on which blog you happen to be reading. When it comes to email etiquette, chances are you want to know more about it only after you’ve made a major faux pas that you can’t take back.

Mistakes are common—we’re all human— so it never hurts to read up on email (or any kind of modern communication) etiquette once in a while.

Things like not writing in all caps, not replying when you’re angry, not waiting several days before replying, and knowing that email sent from work is never private, seem like no-brainers. Still, in our fast-paced work lives, these basics need to be remembered and heeded consistently.

But what about some email practices that could eliminate a lot of headaches for both the sender and receiver? If, for example, you need to schedule time to collaborate with someone on a specific project, give several time options instead of just one. Making the other person aware that they’ve got options for scheduling as well could possibly eliminate the back-and-forth that could ensue.

Something else that is often overlooked in email communication is the importance of the simple act of reading an entire email before replying. Skipping doing this invites confusion, making this type of communication less effective rather than more so in some instances. It’s also important to read your reply before sending it—to make sure it makes sense and that the proper people are being copied.

Properly managing emails may seem mundane and boring, and it’s definitely not why we go to work in labs in the first place. However, email has become an important tool of modern communication. Use it to your advantage in all your work communications by maintaining proper etiquette, and you’re likely to have a more pleasant, efficient experience.

Despite all this needed etiquette in the modern age of communication, research still shows that for many people, face-to-face communication remains the gold standard. People prefer to spend time with close family members and friends, as they feel doing so creates a stronger bond.

It is much the same when it comes to creating stronger relationships with the members of our professional teams. Ideally, electronic communication should be used to supplement face-toface communication. Despite the fact that misunderstandings can occur through electronic communication, it rarely leads to permanent damage in professional relationships. Therefore, electronic communication should be used in accordance with the corporate culture you are working in and to the degree to which the stakeholders in your business feel it can be most effectively utilized.

In some companies in our industry, the electronic relationships are well founded and strong. All parties are very comfortable communicating through email, text, or social media. Other business units, functions, or corporations are happier and more productive when communicating is aligned with in-person interaction or through the good-old-fashioned phone call. By using the preferred form of communication based on the needs and comfort of each business situation and the tasks at hand, a highly effective balance can be struck between the foundational communication means of the present and the ever-changing electronic forms of 2020 and beyond.