Is the formal memo a dead genre?
February 5, 2018 7:16 PM   Subscribe

So those of you that work in corporate environments: Do you ever write and print a formal memo?

I am under the impression that the formal memo has been entirely replaced by email, and that even within email, the language and style have become considerably less formal over the years. What have your experiences been?
posted by mecran01 to Work & Money (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Australian state government here. All corporate "memos" are electronic using an assigned template, though email memos are also effective and permitted. Anything that requires some kind of signature or that is a decision of some kind is uploaded to our document management system, or ministerial correspondence system.

A lot of fogeys (and we have a LOT of fogeys) still like to print things out and bring them to meetings but they are told to do everything electronically. Memos that are distributed to staff are done so electronically.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:22 PM on February 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Print: NEVER. Well, I print emails to take to meetings and on which to take notes for myself. They do go into folders later. But I don't hand them out.

Email: I'm a fairly methodical and formal writer. For long emails, I will write a "short version: two sentences max" at the very beginning for the ADD mgmt types (glancing at it on the iPhone), and then expound with the longer version below that for the engineers or otherwise truly engaged. For emails going to a lot of people, I do spend a lot of time writing it, well. To wit, I edited this post five times before the timer expired.

Context: high tech environment (not IT) within a fast-paced electronic media company in the USA
posted by intermod at 7:24 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lawyers use them.
posted by praemunire at 7:26 PM on February 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

I worked at an engineering firm until last year and we wrote formal memos on company letterhead. We would print them to be delivered with reports, also printed and often bound or in binders.

There would also be electronic copies sent and I have no idea if anyone ever read the paper copy or just threw them away.
posted by lepus at 7:35 PM on February 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

We send out an email every week covering multiple topics. No paper.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:41 PM on February 5, 2018

I work for a financial institution. Certain rather formal memos are written up in word and pdf'd, then distributed via email (either the pdf or a link to the pdf in a shared location).
posted by bunderful at 7:44 PM on February 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Non-profit board memos are still a thing (pdf distributed electronically).
posted by salvia at 7:55 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Canadian Federal Government. Still using paper memos. Sigh.
posted by aclevername at 8:03 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm an academic. We use memos (MEMORANDUM is emblazoned on top) for official paper correspondence, which is more voluminous than I care to admit. We receive both paper and electronic versions of these memos.
posted by sockermom at 8:08 PM on February 5, 2018

The emerging theme is that ‘formal memo’ and ‘email’ are not at all distinct. In fact they would seem to have very high overlap in most places where ‘formal memo’ still means something and is actively used. (IANYOntologist)
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:09 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

None of the traditional forms of business communication has gone away, but each of their use cases has been narrowed by (a) informal emails where acceptable in certain cases where formal business letters or memoranda were once required or (b) PowerPoint decks.

When you're going outside the office, most formal business letters and memoranda are transmitted for primary receipt by email of PDF attachment or rich-text body text these days, but you'd be surprised how many organizations and industries still insist on faxing, mailing or FedExing the paper orginal, or printing paper copies for the files, or both, in follow up to the email. The legal demand letter is still a paper original transmission in many cases, in large part because there are many context where you don't possess an email address for a recipient upon which you have a legal entitlement to rely upon as a form of good notice.

IN HOUSE there are many contexts where paper originals are still used. A heck of lot of board packages, credit committee packages, memos to C-level executives, etc., are transmitted in their primary form by hard copy, with the electronic copy going to assistants, board/committee secretaries, etc., for the record.
posted by MattD at 8:09 PM on February 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I used to work for for a huge multinational corporation (300k-500k employees).

I got probably 5-10 emails a day from various newsletters pertaining to my larger group (thousands of people) and occasionally the company-wide email from the CEO's office. Many were lists of links to press releases (internal or external). Personally all were filtered into a spam folder, since they had little relevance to my job at hand and were written in overly optimistic company tone.

Also constantly got automated newsletters, much like Facebook has, from internal communities. Notifications about pages being edited, files being uploaded, etc.

Paper: impossible. We all had a mailbox that none of us ever checked. Just in the same office: at least a quarter of people would be sick/working from home/100% stuck in meetings/had an alternative schedule, and wouldn't be around to receive it.
posted by meowzilla at 8:14 PM on February 5, 2018

I'm a real estate credit analyst at a bank, and we still use memos regularly, typically either to set in writing something that was talked about elsewhere or to get approval from our Credit Department to modify an existing approval. I write them in Word, save them as a PDF, and distribute them via email to the people who need to sign them, who typically sign them electronically (every once in a while someone prints it out, signs it, and scans it back in) and email them back to me. It's easier to save PDFs in our electronic document system than emails.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:17 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Back in 2007 I was a new administrative assistant and my boss thought I was just the worst, but couldn't get any support for firing me, so she would type up and print out weekly
M E M O R A N D U M s
of our 1:1s and make me sign them, eventually I guess to create the very document of my undoing or some shit.
posted by bleep at 8:21 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

This has turned into a fascinating look at the electronic-paper workflow in the modern office. And it sounds like everything has gotten less formal, in terms of the electronic mail. In other words, email has eroded the genre somewhat.
posted by mecran01 at 8:35 PM on February 5, 2018

Public school district in the U.S. does them formally and electronically as PDFs, particularly relating to union issues.
posted by Temeraria at 8:49 PM on February 5, 2018

We use printed memos, but we are in retail and there may be many coworkers who may not have on-hand email access or be inclined to read their email on the shop floor. This would particularly relate to safety matters, for instance, or important staff policy changes.
posted by frumiousb at 9:01 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

U.S. State Government, Department of Transportation - we still use formal memos for formal submissions, even though there are more purely electronic submission portals, and many of those formal memos get scanned and sent via email even after you have to physically route them around to get all the required signatures. (We also have formal "inter department communications," or IDCs, which also get routed for signatures.)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:10 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have written memos when I needed formal permission and a paper trail for something---but the memo was written in word and sent via email. I don't think I ever printed it out myself (I signed it, I think, in preview), although it's possible a printout is in a file higher up the train. (In one of the cases, it was to raise fees for certain courses.)
posted by leahwrenn at 9:11 PM on February 5, 2018

Hospital: uses formal and informal memos depending on purpose, sometimes printed, sometimes emailed PDF. The formatting is standardized.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:56 PM on February 5, 2018

...the formal memo has been entirely replaced by email...

True in my experience with the proviso that I never did that many formal memos even in the pre-email era. Once email arrived I began doing lots of memo-like emails.
posted by Segundus at 10:46 PM on February 5, 2018

Chemist at two pharmaceutical companies since 2014: everything is through email. Never seen a printed memo. First company was a contract research organization and occasionally someone would print an email as a handy checklist. Second company is a pharma company that was a startup and then grew very large, and I've never seen a formal memo here.
posted by Iron Carbide at 11:15 PM on February 5, 2018

This is making me nostalgic for the days when if you had an article you needed everyone to read you'd attach a cover sheet to the trade magazine with a list of names and put it in the first person's pigeonhole. They'd read it, initial next to their name on the list and then put in the next person's pigeon hole. I got to chase the known offenders who'd hold up the system by leaving it buried on their desk (looking at you, Bob).

Formal memos did get copied for everyone because otherwise it might be 6 weeks before the news made it around the office, Bob willing. Even so, they had to get back to the office to read it so it wasn't immediate. God, I miss those times. Nothing was omg super duper crazy urgent, I emailed you 30 seconds ago, whyyyyyy haven't you replied???

In my office now (university) we still do some printed memos as shoving a piece of paper in front of a senior person is often faster than emailing them. It's usually for things that will end up on someone's personnel file so it's easier to have it all set out in one place than email trails with ever added bits of info that you have to wade through. I'm trying to make future me's life easier. I'd email the memo but with some people reading attachments is apparently optional.
posted by kitten magic at 3:33 AM on February 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I was taught to write, use, and distribute business letters, business correspondence, meeting agendas, meeting summaries, meeting notes, report summaries, and memoranda.

When faxes came into use, we’d put short, formal cover sheets on them.

When email started, we’d attach memos as documents, though not all users had email or worpricessing software; formal notification memos would be posted and or printed out with a sheet to sign you’d been informed about the topic.

Not so much any more.
posted by tilde at 3:37 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've worked in all sorts of companies – transportation, energy, telecoms, government, insurance, financial – and it all depends.

Things in common: email has become the memo, yes. Big announcements are often drafted in PowerPoint, and the slide is converted to an image that is then sent around.

Telecoms was the least formal. Kinda sorta anything goes.

Government, I was on the IT side, and it was the next least formal. However, in insurance, which in France is strongly linked to government due to regulations, I was working with the general directorate, so I got to see the more formal side: PPTs converted into JPGs.

Energy and transportation were rather formal. Where the most money is involved, the highest formality is reached, but not so much that careers are on the line when it comes to memos.

Finance has been THE most formal. Careers-on-the-line formal memos.
posted by fraula at 4:58 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

My last job (defense R&D) was incredibly formal about documentation - mostly because we were essentially consultants, so that's kind of the nature of the game. We had a whole hierarchy of various levels of formality:

-Internal memos (non-technical). Usually information about corporate policy, end-of-year pay and purchasing info, stuff like that. Everyone received a hard copy in the interoffice mail.

-Internal memos (technical). These included things like trip reports (required every time you went on business travel), document review summaries, anything we needed formal record of but didn't want to communicate with the customer. Generally, the program manager or tech director would receive a hard copy and everyone else on distribution would get an emailed copy.

-Letters. Formal deliverables to our government customers. These usually were covers for other stuff that we needed to send to them. Always printed, signed, and sent to the government PM, as well as soft copies for archives.

-"Working notes." Summaries of technical work that was more in depth than what would be warranted by a mere memo. Large distribution list, several higher ups would get paper copies.

-Technical reports. The highest form of technical documentation, and the most prized for end-of-year reviews. These could range in to the hundreds of pages depending on the work. Most people on distribution would receive a printed, bound copy.

Performance reviews were closely tied to the amount of paper you produced. We used to joke that the biggest raises went to the people who killed the most number of trees. I left this job in December, so it's definitely still A Thing that happens if you happen to land at the right place.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:20 AM on February 6, 2018

I work for a hospital system and have never seen a printed memo in the four years that I've been there. We get a daily corporate summary email that no one reads and a weekly industry round-up email but very few formal messages.
posted by octothorpe at 5:34 AM on February 6, 2018

Canadian Federal Government. Still using paper memos.

We just got electronic signing in the past few months. No more printing out to sign then scanning back in to mail! It's fantastic. Even senior management likes it. So we're much more paperless now than last fiscal.
posted by bonehead at 6:28 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am under the impression that the formal memo has been entirely replaced by email, and that even within email, the language and style have become considerably less formal over the years. What have your experiences been?

In my experience in government (Canadian PS), there's still a lot of formality between the working level and management. Partly this is workplace culture, but I think, it's also inevitable given both the large number of communications management is expected to deal with and the need for public record keeping. Both those requirements point to needing a standardized format, just to improve workflow.

Over my two decades with the service, I've seen the form of the memos to senior management change a fair bit, but they've largely been to streamline and simplify the format, while ensuring that the memos have all the information needed to make a decision. Email hasn't really helped this at all; by the time issues get to management for decision, you might be facing one of those infamous 100-reply email chains that takes 30 minutes to read, with critical info and worse, edits on edits spread all over it. So a formal memo provides a summary, just-the-facts, hit-the-high-points summary of a discussion without a lot of the noise and distractions that a forwarded email chain does. I think there's considerable value in that.
posted by bonehead at 6:36 AM on February 6, 2018

Lawyers use them.

Yes. In my Australian State government context - I will use a memo rather than an email for giving advice (internally) where the advice is lengthy or important or it's one of those issues that I know will come up a lot. I just pdf it and send it, the recipient can print it if they want.

A few reasons for the formality: it will be generally be longer than the average email and I want the "this communication is privileged" warning on every page, I'd like to come across with a certain amount of gravitas - email is thought of as off-the-cuff but my advice is a considered opinion and I would like it to be regarded as such! I want to make it harder for someone to alter or cut and paste it, it's easier to identify on a paper or electronic file with the different format.

Having said that, lawyers on opposite sides will now correspond by email for things that 5 or 10 years ago would have been by letter (even if that letter was then only sent electronically). My theory as to why is not just the informalisation of the culture, but that a lawyer would be more comfortable dictating a letter or memo than an email. As admin support gets scarcer, and more lawyers learn or get used to typing, the email becomes the easier form of communication. I only write letters where necessary because it's easier to email than to wrangle with letter templates etc.

A lot of fogeys (and we have a LOT of fogeys) still like to print things out and bring them to meetings but they are told to do everything electronically. 

I once brought my laptop to a meeting so that I could read the documents on the screen rather than print them out. Everybody else in that meeting printed and brought documents. The meeting was about moving to wholly electronic files.
posted by pianissimo at 7:12 AM on February 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Canadian federal government as well, and we do not have electronic signatures in my department. We still print and sign formal memos. The are required for documentation of decision making and record keeping, and are a practicality when multiple signatures are required. More informal emails have difficulties in those regards.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:10 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am amazed at this post.

I have never seen or written a memo in my professional career in electrical engineering. I have never received a printed copy of anything anyone has written related to my work, nor have I printed out anything I wrote myself except for copies for reference. If I were to do so, people would look askance assuming a record was being created for some sort of legal action.

To be clear, creating records and technical documents is distinct from printed/formal memorandum. Document control systems exist to automate the process of document creation, approval, modification, etc. In every system I've worked with, I've done nothing more than click "accept" to documents that happen to be formally controlled. The scope of documents requiring control is kept minimal - usually just manufacturing documents associated with products being built (so that documents can be sent to a manufacturer in a controlled fashion) and systems requirements documents.

I suspect this is indicative of how inefficient many businesses are and why people are so suspicious of the efficiency of government agencies. If I heard the sort of paperwork described in this thread was a thing at a place I wanted to work at, I'd reconsider working there and move to a more reasonable employer.
posted by saeculorum at 9:32 AM on February 6, 2018

Canadian lawyer here. Definitely write formal memos, and assign others to write them. Read them on my laptop or print them out.

Sometimes I go to write an email and realize it would be better as a memo - into the memo template it goes.
posted by hepta at 11:24 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

If I were to do so, people would look askance assuming a record was being created for some sort of legal action.

Creating records related to administration and enforcement of laws and regulations, with legally mandated transparency and accountability to citizens is an essential part of good governance. By the very nature of what they do, governments and their civil services are often drawn into legal action or have to comply with access to information requests. I don't think it is fair to compare working in the private sector as an electrical engineer to running a transparent and accountable government.
posted by fimbulvetr at 2:03 PM on February 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I haven't seen a printed memo for about 15 years (work context: university science faculty in the UK). Some of what would have been communicated on a printed memo is now on email (and phrased less formally). Important precise information, particularly HR stuff, comes through as a pdf attachment to an email: this includes both group communications (e.g. an invitation to apply for promotion, details of the final salary agreement for the following year) or individual ones (e.g. a disciplinary warning). I think that is both to add gravitas to these, and to ensure that it is very clear what the formal context of the message is.

The biggest change I've seen, though, has been a move from push to pull communications:
  • 1990: Printed paper memo saying "Attached are the minutes of the Faculty Meeting on 2nd February." with a paper copy of the minutes attached. Probably the memo part is on a different colour of paper, or perhaps even printed onto a letterhead-style paper with "Memorandum" at the top.
  • 2005: Email saying "Minutes from last friday's faculty meeting attached" with a Word or pdf file attachment.
  • 2018: Minutes are posted on some Sharepoint site or CMS-backed website as a pdf file. People are expected, whether by formal training or osmosis, to know that if they need to find the minutes they look them up on the site.
Similarly for meetings etc. - more likely to be placed directly in shared calendars rather than a specific email going around with "here are the details of the next three months' Faculty Meetings".
posted by Jabberwocky at 2:35 PM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is making me nostalgic for the days when if you had an article you needed everyone to read you'd attach a cover sheet to the trade magazine with a list of names and put it in the first person's pigeonhole. They'd read it, initial next to their name on the list and then put in the next person's pigeon hole.

My workplace (arts institution, run by corporate types who joined in the '80s and never left) still does this. I wish I were joking.
posted by Anita Bath at 3:21 PM on February 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I WISH we did that. At my PhD institution handing out the latest journals was done this way. Now I think that no one even reads journals anymore afaik. (Not joking, I was told today in fact that it was "ridiculous" to "waste my time" reading articles - "just get a grad student to do it for you" -- oh, ok, do you share a brain with your students?) Anyhow, I digress. Memos are great! Long live the paper record!
posted by sockermom at 4:57 PM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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