A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!

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