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I just joined the workforce. How do I communicate effectively through all of the mediums available to me?

Congratulations on your new role! This is such an exciting time to join the workforce. I remember starting my first industry position out of school, and it was both exciting and overwhelming. Not only are you spending a lot of time learning about your specific role, but also how your department contributes to key goals and priorities for the company. There are new team members to get to know, as well as your boss. Communicating with these co-workers is likely very important, as it’s rare that we work in a silo.

There are many people inside and outside your organization whom you will likely need to interact with to do your job. When it comes to communications, there are several factors to consider, and these continue to change as the workplace is changing. Not only should you consider what mediums of communication are available to you, but you should also consider preferences of those you’re communicating with, the level of the person in the organization, the content you’re communicating, the necessity of timeliness in the communication, and so on. Of the three people I worked most closely with in my first job, two were similar-level employees whom I often worked alongside, but one was a senior director who was key in giving direction to my work. I communicated with each of these people in very different manners, considering their role and influence in my work.

Tools typically available to you might include instant messaging; message boards in collaboration software; email; or one-on-one or small group conversation, either in person or via phone or video calls. Instant messaging is an excellent tool to get quick answers to questions that don’t require long or detailed conversations. Because this is a very informal medium, it may help if you have built a relationship (or at least met) the person you are communicating with. Otherwise, a short email might be more appropriate so you can introduce yourself and frame your request more appropriately. Short meetings or phone calls, regardless of the medium used, are useful if a longer discussion is necessary to come to a decision about a project direction or a design. If your team includes people from multiple company sites, you’ll likely need multiple or hybrid methods of communication.

In any of these business communications, it’s important to consider the workplace culture and any workplace rules. Every company has different norms around communication mediums used, which can also often differ by industry. If you work in a field where security is of utmost importance, there may be certain types of communications that should never be used. If in doubt of procedures and requirements, ask a colleague with the experience to guide you.

Also consider the type of information that needs to be communicated. Is this something that is sensitive or should be kept confidential only to those involved in the exchange? If so, a phone or video call or in-person meeting may be the best approach. Do you have a short question that should require only a quick response to not disrupt your work? If I am working on a new product or process and need to confirm a part number, I would use instant messaging with one of my peers.

And finally, don’t disregard the personalities and preferences of the people you are communicating with. Building trust is a key part of effective workplace collaboration, and everyone has different preferences for communication. It pays to do the work upfront to learn your colleagues’ communication preferences and try to stick within those preferences, or at least try to use them as the predominant communication routes.

For example, I work with many European colleagues who highly value verbal conversation. Early on in working with new colleagues at my company’s European sites, I took the time to get to know them. Once those relationships were established, it became much easier to ping them on instant messenger when I had a quick request. They were more likely to respond to me rapidly because I spent the time to build the relationship with them. Otherwise, I could be waiting a whole day for them to respond to my email; or they might completely ignore my instant message. Additionally, different generations tend to communicate differently in the workplace. I find those who are entering the workforce now tend toward less formal communication such as instant messaging or project message boards, whereas my older colleagues prefer email.

Once you’ve learned about the tools available, the norms at your company, and the preferences of your colleagues, it becomes much easier to decide whether to send an email or pick up the phone.

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Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D. (she, her, hers), provided the answer to this question. Dr. Ongstad is an associate principal scientist in cardiovascular disease research at AstraZeneca. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in bioengineering from Clemson University and a B.S. in bioengineering from Michigan Technological University. An active SWE life member, she currently serves as editorial board chair-elect.