Instant Messaging vs. Email: When to Use Each for Business Communication

Email just got an evite to a battle with instant messaging. 😮 As IM becomes more prevalent, know when email still rules for professional communication.

Like an overeager coworker barging into an important meeting, instant messaging (IM) has burst onto the business communication scene, disrupting email’s longstanding dominance. But while IM may be the trendy new kid, email still has unique strengths.

The key for businesses today is understanding the distinct purposes and benefits of both tools. That insight allows seamlessly blending IM, email, and other technologies to optimize communication.

Overview of Email and Instant Messaging

Email and instant messaging (IM) are two of the most popular communication tools used in the workplace today. Though they share similarities, there are some key differences between these mediums that impact how and when they should be used for business communication.

What is Email?

Email has become an indispensable business communication tool ever since it was first invented back in the early 1970s. The first email message was sent across the ARPANET system by Ray Tomlinson in 1971. This revolutionary technology allowed computer users on different networks to exchange messages electronically.

Over the next few decades, email evolved from a relatively niche technology used by academics and the military to a mainstream communication medium. The rise of the internet in the 1990s led to the widespread adoption of email for personal and business use. Today, over 3.9 billion people worldwide use email regularly.

At its core, email allows users to exchange asynchronous, text-based messages over the internet. Users compose messages on their devices, add attachments if needed, and send them to one or more recipients. These messages are delivered almost instantly to the recipients’ inboxes, where they can be read at any time.

Some of the main advantages of email include:

  • Asynchronous communication – Recipients don’t have to be online at the same time to receive and respond to messages. This allows conversations to happen across time zones and on each user’s schedule.
  • Record keeping – Emails are saved in inboxes and archives, creating a long-term record of conversations and information sharing. This supports tasks like record keeping, compliance, and knowledge management.
  • Formality – The asynchronous nature of email supports more formal, thought-out communications. Senders can carefully compose messages before sending.
  • Attachments – Email makes it easy to share files, reports, presentations, images, and other digital assets through attachments.
  • Connecting with external parties – Email is the universal business communication medium, making it easy to connect with customers, partners, vendors and other external parties.

What is Instant Messaging?

Instant messaging (IM) apps allow real-time, text-based communication between users. Popular IM platforms used in businesses include Slack, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Workplace, and more.

IM originated in the 1990s with the rise of public “chat rooms” where internet users could have live conversations. In the late 1990s, the first dedicated IM clients emerged, with AOL Instant Messenger being one of the first to gain major traction. This allowed users to maintain private conversations with specific contacts in real-time.

Today’s business IM apps retain that core functionality while expanding features to support workplace collaboration. Users can have one-on-one chats, group conversations, share files, integrate business apps, and more.

Some benefits of IM for business include:

  • Real-time communication – IM provides instant back-and-forth conversations, allowing quicker resolutions and decision making.
  • Casual and conversational – The informal nature of IM makes it easy to have free-flowing discussions.
  • Presence and availability – IM shows when contacts are online/available, helping gauge availability.
  • Group chat – Most IM apps allow groups of employees to collaborate in shared chat rooms or groups.
  • Multitasking – The non-disruptive nature of IM allows users to chat while working on other tasks.
  • Searchability – IMs are logged and searchable in many apps, creating a record of discussions.

Key Differences Between Email and Instant Messaging

While email and IM share some common ground, there are some important ways these communication mediums differ:

  • Formality – Email’s asynchronous nature lends itself to more formal communications. IM tends to facilitate more casual, conversational interactions.
  • Asynchronicity – One of email’s core advantages is asynchronous communication. IM requires both parties to be present to have a fluid back-and-forth.
  • Message history – Email inbox archives store long-term message histories. IM history varies across platforms but tends to be less durable and persistent.
  • Group chat capabilities – Most IM apps allow fluid group chats with shared workspaces. Email can work for group messages but tends to be clunky.
  • External communication – Email is universal, making it ideal for corresponding with outside parties. IM is great for internal team communication.
  • Attachments – Email makes sharing attachments seamless. IM apps have some attachment sharing but it varies across platforms.
  • Multitasking – The lightweight nature of IM makes it easy to chat while working on other tasks. Email often requires more focused attention.

The differences between IM and email highlight the unique strengths of each medium. Understanding these differences allows businesses to leverage both technologies and use the right communication channel for any given situation or need. With training and discipline around best practices, businesses can optimize their usage of email, IM, and other digital channels in a synergistic way.

When Should Businesses Use Email for Communication?

While instant messaging has become popular for quick, casual team conversations, email still has an important place in business communications. Its asynchronous nature and ability to share formal, detailed information over distance make email the right choice in many scenarios.

Longer, More Formal Communications

If you need to send a communication that requires lengthy, formal, or highly structured information, email is likely the better choice. Some examples include:

  • Legal agreements and notices – Any official contracts, legal notifications (like policy changes), or binding agreements between parties are best sent via email so there is a formal record. Sending a legal document over instant message could be perceived as casual or careless.
  • Important HR announcementsEmail is the ideal channel for company-wide HR announcements about changes to policies, procedures, benefits, training programs and more. These formal announcements often require structured templates and language, which email is designed for.
  • Detailed information or instructions – If you need to provide in-depth information like technical specifications, step-by-step instructions, or long-form text, an email is safer than instant message to ensure important details are captured.
  • Official reports or presentations – Rather than trying to convey a 20-page quarterly report over instant message, you can quickly share the file as an email attachment.

The asynchronous and structured nature of email makes it the best medium for communications that require formality, legal binding, or conveying lots of details in an official capacity.

Asynchronous Communication

One of the main advantages of email is that it facilitates asynchronous communication, meaning the sender and recipient don’t have to be online at the same time. This makes email the optimal choice when real-time discussion isn’t required. A few examples include:

  • Different time zones – If team members are located in different time zones, email prevents productivity loss from endless games of “tag” trying to have a live conversation. Non-urgent matters can efficiently be discussed without time zone friction.
  • Non-urgent information – If a communication doesn’t require an immediate response, using an email where the recipient can read and respond on their own time is often preferred. This avoids disrupting colleagues with non-urgent messages.
  • Record keeping needed – Legal, compliance, and knowledge management needs often dictate maintaining accessible archives of business communications. Email provides an easy way to store conversations that can be searched and referenced in the future.

Choosing email for non-urgent, non-time sensitive information exchange helps balance productivity and flexibility across time zones, working styles, and schedules.

External Communication

Email is the universal business communication tool that virtually every partner, supplier, customer, and vendor uses on a daily basis. It’s a straightforward way to connect with external parties while maintaining a professional tone. Reasons email excels for external communications:

  • Maintaining a professional image – While fun emoji-filled IMs are great for internal team chats, they can project immaturity to outsiders. Email allows professional, structured communications.
  • Security and compliance – Many companies limit instant messaging to internal systems. Email provides a compliant way to exchange information with customers and partners.
  • Universal access – Not every partner or vendor will use your IM platforms. Email provides a ubiquitous channel accessible to all.
  • Relationship history – Email inbox archives preserve external communication histories, guarding institutional knowledge even amid staff turnover.

With email being most external parties’ primary (if not only) digital communication channel, it remains a critical tool for professional and secure correspondence outside organization walls.

In summary, understanding email’s strengths like asynchronicity, formality, and record keeping points to the many situations where it’s still the optimal business communication medium. Though instant messaging is gaining traction for quick collaboration, the venerable email remains essential for critical business needs.

When Should Businesses Use Instant Messaging for Communication?

Instant messaging offers teams a quick, casual way to communicate in real-time. When email is too formal or conversations need the flexibility of live back-and-forth, IM shines. Common situations where instant messaging best enables business communication include:

Quick Conversations

Instant messaging is ideal for brief, real-time conversations where email would feel cumbersome. A few examples include:

IM provides a channel for quick, succinct conversations that don’t require the formality or permanence of an email thread.

Informal Team Communication

Within the context of a team, instant messaging facilitates casual conversations that help build culture and strengthen relationships:

  • Brainstorming and sharing ideas – Quickly riffing concepts and ideas over IM can accelerate ideation compared to rigid email chains.
  • Coordinating projects and tasks – Team members can use IMs to efficiently review priorities, provide status updates, adjust plans, and sync up.
  • Water cooler conversations – IMs allow light chat between colleagues to get to know each other, share laughs, and create bonds.

These types of informal communications are difficult over email. Instant messaging gives teams a way to connect that is personal yet still professional.

Direct 1:1 or Small Group Discussions

For focused conversations between individuals or small groups, instant messaging allows swift, direct, and seamless discussions:

  • Fewer miscommunications – The rapid back-and-forth of IM reduces chances of crossed wires compared to long email chains.
  • More engagement than email threads – Long email threads often derail, while IM keeps conversations focused and engaged.
  • Immediate feedback – IM provides real-time input, corrections, and answers compared to asynchronous emails.
  • Off-the-cuff brainstorming – Spontaneous IM chats allow new concepts and ideas to flow freely in a judgment-free space.

Between the real-time discussion and the casual tone, instant messaging makes one-on-one or small group conversations far more interactive and aligned.

While email remains essential for formal business communications, instant messaging fills an important niche for quick, casual, real-time conversations. Teams that embrace both mediums can optimize their communication strategies by using the right channel for any given purpose. With training and discipline, the two technologies can seamlessly co-exist while serving complementary needs.

Best Practices for Email and Instant Messaging in Business

To maximize the value of both email and instant messaging (IM) for your business, it’s important to implement best practices around usage policies, integration, training, and more. Optimizing your approach to these powerful communication tools helps improve productivity, collaboration, and workplace culture.

Have Clear Communication Policies

Set clear guidelines for employees on when and how to effectively use email vs. instant messaging. Key policies to define include:

When to use email vs. IM

Provide general guidelines on which medium suits different situations:

  • Use email for formal communications, legal/compliance matters, external parties, and anything requiring detailed information or a record.
  • Use IM for quick questions, brainstorming, real-time team discussions, non-urgent internal communication, and casual conversations.

IM etiquette

Publish instant messaging etiquette standards that allow the platform to be used freely while minimizing disruptions:

  • Be concise and avoid sending unnecessary messages.
  • Avoid disturbing colleagues unnecessarily (e.g. late at night, during meetings).
  • Don’t expect immediate responses to every message.
  • Keep side conversations relevant to work.
  • Let team members indicate if they are “busy” and shouldn’t be disturbed.

Clear policies empower employees to use the right communication channels while also promoting effective practices.

Use the Right Medium for the Situation

Beyond general policies, train staff to think critically about choosing the best medium for any given communication:

  • Match communication style to purpose – Consider whether informal IM or formal email is better suited based on goals.
  • Use urgent IMs sparingly – Don’t reflexively “IM” colleagues for every minor question. Respect focus time.
  • Email if record keeping is needed – Will you need a paper trail for compliance or audits?
  • Email externally when appropriate – Don’t assume external parties use your IM platform.
  • Set expectations on response times – Don’t expect an immediate email reply unless a situation is truly urgent.

With practice, employees can develop instincts for when email and IM are appropriate. This enhances communication efficiency company-wide.

Integrate IM and Email Workflows

Look for ways to integrate instant messaging into broader productivity workflows that incorporate email:

  • Unified inboxes – Access disparate email accounts and IMs together in apps like Slack or Teams.
  • Email notifications for IMsForward important IM conversations into your email archive.
  • IM file sharing and searchability – Use IM tools with strong content and file management features.
  • Visibility into co-worker availability – See if someone is online and active in an IM app before emailing.
  • Quick email follow up over IM – If an email needs clarification, discuss over quick IM rather than more emailed threads.

Smart integrations unite the benefits of IM and email to create seamless communications.

Train Employees on Proper Usage

Provide training to ensure employees have the skills and knowledge to use both email and IM professionally:

  • Writing skills – Offer writing training for professional yet approachable email and IM communication styles.
  • Security protocols – Educate teams on safely and securely using each platform when handling confidential data.
  • Compliance practices – Share approved practices for archiving IMs or emails containing sensitive information.
  • Tools and settings – How to access all functionality of your email and IM apps.
  • Company communication culture – Instill a culture that celebrates the effective use of technology for collaboration.

Ongoing training develops the habits and practices for optimal email and IM communication.

Wrap Up and Key Takeaways

Mastering both email and IM strategically can profoundly improve team alignment, productivity, workplace culture, and more. Key takeaways include:

  • Know when to use each medium (and don’t overuse urgent IMs).
  • Weave instant messaging seamlessly into broader workflows like those around email.
  • Develop strong writing and communication skills across channels.
  • Allow casual IM conversations but maintain professionalism.
  • Implement IM etiquette standards to prevent notifications from overwhelming colleagues.
  • Don’t impose IMs on employees who need heads-down focus time.

With training, standards, integration, and the right culture, businesses can tap into the unique strengths of both email and IM while mitigating any weaknesses.

Summary on Using Email and Instant Messaging for Business

Email and instant messaging are both vital digital communication channels with unique strengths. Key lessons on using each effectively include:

  • Know when to use email for formal or detailed communications, legal/compliance needs, communicating with external parties, and asynchronous conversations.
  • Use instant messaging for quick, casual team conversations that require live back-and-forth. Also great for non-urgent questions, coordinating projects, and brainstorming.
  • Email excels at structured communication, while IM provides speed and conversational flow. Understand the strengths of each.
  • Integrate IM into broader productivity workflows like those around email to provide visibility into co-worker availability and seamlessly continue conversations across tools.
  • Implement IM etiquette standards to prevent notifications from overwhelming colleagues. Avoid abusing urgent messages.
  • Set clear policies defining appropriate use cases for email vs. IM to provide guidance. Publish standards for professional IM conduct.
  • Train employees extensively on writing skills, security protocols, compliance practices, and proper utilization of features for both email and IM platforms.

With training and discipline around best practices, businesses can optimize these complementary technologies to improve communication, collaboration, and alignment across departments and teams.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Should email or instant messaging be used for legal/compliance communications?
Email is better suited for legal agreements, notices, and any communication that requires a formal record. Instant messaging is too casual.

Q: When is it acceptable to use instant messaging with customers or external partners?

It’s best to stick to email for external communications, unless you’ve confirmed that the recipient uses and is comfortable with your specific IM platform.

Q: Should employees be allowed to use instant messaging for non-work conversations?

Light personal IM chat can help build connections and workplace culture. But institute guidelines to prevent excessive non-work conversations that distract from productivity.

Q: How can companies integrate email and instant messaging workflows?

Options include unified inboxes, IM notifications sent to email, visibility into contact availability, and using IMs for quick email follow up.

Q: How can managers discourage overuse of urgent instant messages?

Training, guidelines, and leading by example. Encourage more asynchronous communication when messages don’t require immediate attention.

Q: What considerations should govern whether email or IM is used?

Consider formality, urgency, need for external communication, record keeping requirements, and whether real-time discussion is beneficial.

Q: How can companies implement IM etiquette standards?

Publish guidelines addressing excessive messaging, after-hours disturbance, response expectations, privacy, and professional conduct.

Q: Should email be used for company-wide announcements or instant messaging?

Email is better for formal company-wide communications that require structured templates and language.

Q: How can employees improve their written communication skills for both email and IM?

Formal writing training, modeling positive examples, peer editing, and spelling/grammar checks can help polish communication across channels.