You’ve Got Mail…Ugh.

The first thing I do every morning before I’ve even rolled out of bed is check my email. I’m still groggy and in desperate need of a shower and some coffee, but before I throw back the covers and push my dog off my legs, I reach for my iPhone. Usually it’s just the same slew of overnight marketing emails and advertisements for things I don’t want, but no matter if it’s a weekday or if I’m on vacation, I will still check my email.

And I’m not alone. In 2015 The Harvard Business Review conducted a study where they found that 87% of millennials check their work email (45% of whom said they check their emails before they get out of bed in the morning!). The same study found that 98% of millennials check their personal email accounts every few hours during work (don’t tell your boss!). Based on numbers like that, millennials are nearly as wired into their email accounts as we are into texting, Facebook, and Snapchat. The kicker? Millennials hate email!

A few weeks ago I had a long conversation with a client about being overwhelmed by email. She did not understand why communication in her company could not be done more informally or via text. I can sympathize with that. During my first performance review at an old job I was given the feedback that my emails were too curt. In order to be more compliant with company culture and avoid misunderstandings I needed to start my emails with “Hi XXX,” and then provide a full-range of information before ending my email with an appropriate “Sincerely,” or “All the best.” And, in truth, many millennials just do not communicate that way.

Are emails going away? No, and they shouldn’t. Emails are the main form of both internal and external communication for most companies. They’re our main professional alternative when face to face communication is not possible. They aren’t going anywhere. My point however, is that as our means of communicating socially change, our understanding of how we communicate professionally needs to evolve as well.

Let me see if I can explain it like this. Say I want to get a slice of pizza with my friend Joe. Joe lives several miles away, so I can’t just walk over to his house and ask him. I need to reach him remotely. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I would’ve called Joe. “Hi Joe! How are things going man? Yeah, yeah I’m good. Say, I was going to go and get some pizza in a bit, would you like to go? Okay cool, does 7 o’clock work? How about Johnny’s Pizza on Main Street? Perfect see you then.” However as the culture and avenues of communication have changed, so too has my approach in communicating with Joe. If I wanted to get pizza with Joe this evening, I’m probably less likely to call him (unless it was a pizza-craving emergency!). Instead I would likely send him a single text. “Hey Joe. Pizza at Johnny’s on Main at 7?” Then Joe would likely send me back the following: “K.”

In that scenario the same information was communicated between us, but in a much more informal, and arguably more efficient way. And that’s very similar to the way a lot of millennials approach corporate communication. If you work in Sales or Marketing than you probably approach external communication a bit differently (i.e. sending the most perfectly crafted polite, funny, charming emails in the world!), but the differences in internal communication, and the disconnects associated with it, can drive people crazy. So how does that happen?

Consider the following email:

“Could you send the freight audit spreadsheet from last month?”

What is the purpose of me sending this email? Well, quite simply I need the freight audit spreadsheet from last month and the person who I sent this to presumably has a copy. It’s short, to the point and seems fine, right? Well, that would depend on who you ask. While that is the typical tone of an email I might send, it’s is a little different than email a Baby Boomer or a Gen-Xer might send.

“Hi Martha,

Whenever you have a moment could you please send me the freight audit spreadsheet from last month? I am putting together a report of internal audits from Q2 for the meeting with Michael on Friday.

Thanks so much,


What’s the difference between the two messages? The second one provides more detail, addresses the email directly to Martha, and ends with a note of thanks.  But is there anything that Martha really needed to know in that message? Not necessarily. It was nice to provide Martha some context as to why you needed a copy of the report, but from a bottom-line basis the additional context of the second email is not going to affect Martha’s deliverable. In either scenario, the end result would be that Martha would attach the file to a reply email and send it back to me. The millennial perspective, “I asked Martha for it and she sent it back,” vs. the Baby Boomer/Gen-X perspective, “I gave Martha the context as to why I needed the file and she sent it back.”

There’s a lot more discussion to be had about this topic on company culture, but on the surface it is important to notice the differences in how different generations think about communication. In the first email I sent, I’m not angry or annoyed with Martha, and I did not address my message directly to her, because I sent it to her inbox. How else would I be talking to? However in the context of my previous job this note would have been considered curt, maybe even rude. The Charmm’d Foundation, an Illinois-based non-profit, released their “Checklist for Communicating with Different Generations,” where they found that while Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers like to understand the big picture, share information to get collective buy-in, and make decisions at their own pace, millennials like to communicate rapidly via texting or concise emails and want others to provide information quickly that will help them solve their own problems.

How we communicate non verbally matters and our perceptions of those communication choices are not always accurate. What do you think about communication in your office? Have office emails gotten you in trouble? Head back to Base Camp and join the conversation!