As a companion to my post about the strengths of e-mail communication, I’ll include here some of the risks and downsides I’ve observed to communicating via e-mail.

Weaknesses of e-mail communication:

Effectiveness is solely dependent on receiving party’s dilligence in checking for messages. “But I e-mailed you the document last week, didn’t you get it?” Ever heard that or similar comments? E-mail is great as a form of follow-up communication, and possibly primary communication if you know for certain that the recipient checks their e-mail account regularly. However, you’re really taking your chances if you’re relying on an e-mailed message as the sole communication of a message of any importance.

A close friend of mine recently mentioned that she was concerned as to whether an individual was going to show up for the engagement to which they’d been invited and agreed to attend several weeks ago. On the afternoon before the event, my friend sent out a follow-up e-mail and was panicked when she didn’t hear back 10 minutes later. It wasn’t until she finally realized it was useless sitting around waiting on an e-mail that may never come. She made a 2 minute phone call, confirmed the appointment and went on her merry way.

It’s easier to ignore an e-mail than it is spoken conversation. E-mail makes it very easy to “tune out” messages that you just don’t feel like dealing with at present. A fair portion of e-mail is completely ignored. If you really need to get a message across, and need to be sure that it is received, pay a visit or pick up the phone.

E-mail “conversations” often require days of back-and-forth whereas only a few spoken minutes would probably achieve at least as good a result. Despite its speed of delivery, you’re best off not attempting to use e-mail as a mean of real-time communication. If it can be covered via a phone conversation in a quick manner, don’t hold up the works by trying to carry out conversations requiring lots of back-and-forth interaction via e-mail. If you want to make sure that your conversation is documented and associated with a time, send out a quick e-mail summary of the conversation.

E-mail lacks the personal touch of spoken or face-to-face communication. Emoticons (i.e. “Smileys”) just aren’t de rigeur for business interaction (thank goodness). I’ve occasionally found my attempts to convey personality and perhaps a touch of humor are lost on the e-mail recipient. The drier the humor, the greater the chance that your one-liner will bomb. In a professional context, e-mail is great for communicating brief, informative messages but unless you try writing a full-length piece of e-mail literature (and even if you do), you likely won’t achieve the personal touch you want to convey.

Potentially higher security risk or unauthorized disclosure of private information. Quick and easy? Yes. Private? Not so much. There are certainly privacy concerns in using e-mail as a corporate communications medium. Confidential information can find its way into an email message with little thought or consideration of the risks on the part of the sender. Of course there are ways of mitigating security risks through technology and policy, and, to be fair, no means of communication is 100% secure. Just bear in mind when e-mailing that the advantage of having a “paper” trail can also be a disadvantage.

Trying to keep up e-mail can be a distraction. When you really need to get work done, it’s best to take communication offline.