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Electronic Communication Tools: Top Pitfalls Affecting Hotel Staff Efficiency


Love it or hate it, e-mail is a fact of life for hotel managers. According to the results of a recent study by two Cornell University researchers, the key to e-mail is to get control of it -- and not to let it control you. The control issue has two major pieces: time spent on e-mail and the appropriate use of e-mail, which includes proper tone and grammar. The study, "Hospitality Managers and Communication Technologies: Challenges and Solutions," by Judi Brownell and Amy Newman, is posted on the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research website, where it can be downloaded at no charge.

When Brownell and Newman asked 100 managers of independent and chain hotels to state their biggest e-mail challenge, they resoundingly said that they receive too many e-mails -- especially the ones that are "FYI copies" of other people's email messages. Eighty-one of the 100 managers reported that they spent a remarkable two to five hours per day on e-mails, with younger managers being the ones on the high side of that range. Another issue cited by some respondents was inappropriate use of e-mail, when another communication method, like a face-to-face conversation, would be much better. While some respondents thought that e-mail was valuable because it made a record of messages, others believed that some of their colleagues used e-mail to dodge personal interactions. One manager summarized this point as follows: "E-mail can be effective when used properly as a tool; it is not a replacement for interpersonal communication."

Email response timeliness
The hotel managers agreed that the time horizon for e-mail responses was an issue, but they couldn't agree on how far away that horizon might be. A fair number would essentially respond immediately, but most thought a one-day turnaround would be acceptable for all but the most urgent of messages. That said, one-third of the managers saw no need to respond to messages for two or even three days. Given those relaxed deadline standards, it might not be surprising that many managers were concerned that people held unrealistic time expectations regarding responses to e-mail messages.

Grammar, tone, and clarity are issues both for e-mails received and those sent. Here is one area where women were more concerned than men. Even as the managers held their noses when confronted with poor grammar, they were concerned that they themselves might be sending out poorly constructed messages. Said one respondent: "You do not want people to be laughing [at you] on the other end."

Newer electronic communication tools
Brownell and Newman started their study with the idea of examining six formats for electronic communication, including document sharing, intranets, instant messaging, discussion groups, wikis, and blogs. However, e-mail is so pervasive that respondents focused primarily on e-mail issues. Still, two-thirds of the respondents had access to company intranets, and about half used document sharing, which they saw as a useful technology. Relatively few used IM, discussion groups, wikis, or blogs. Ironically, Brownell and Newman point out that these lesser-used technologies can cut down on the volume of e-mail traffic.

As the newer technologies take hold, Brownell and Newman expect e-mail volume to decline. Until that day comes, however, they suggest that hotel operators establish reasonable time guidelines for e-mail responses, so that managers don't have to determine what's appropriate on their own. Since vague or inappropriate message content contributes to the length of time that one spends on e-mail (not to mention message comprehension), companies should offer instruction on how to keep e-mails brief and to the point. This includes using the inverted pyramid approach, by putting the most important information first. Finally, managers who are concerned about the tone or content of their messages should be encouraged to ask an associate to read them. These strategies should go a long way toward taming the e-mail monster, and making it a useful friend for managers.

Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research.

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