At work, everyone struggles with being able to dedicate the right amount of time to the right activities.
The exercise is a tough one, considering the vast number of solicitations one has to be deal with.
There are very few people I know who don’t describe their meeting and email practice as a real burden that impacts the amount of time they’d rather spend on relevant activities.
Regarding meetings, I have written an article to help you adopt “The 5 Tips for Spotting which Meetings to Avoid”.
As for emails, they are equally time-consuming as a loosely managed meeting practice.
Starting from the same statement I made for meetings: let’s agree that “having a mailbox full of emails shouldn’t mean that they’re all equally important”.
Let’s perform the following exercise:
Add the number of unnecessary meetings to the number of emails one deals with which should have not been processed in the first place.
Once done, translate the total into direct costs (such as your salary) and hidden costs (productive activities or results that will not take place).
Extrapolate this across your company and calculate the productivity (and costs) gains if this was better managed!
The new habit of being able to work remotely (on a large scale) has brought an additional layer of pressure and complexity to email practices.
As with meetings, implementing an effective email policy is a wise decision to take that will deliver an immediate ROI.
So, why is it that so few companies spend time and effort to define an effective email policy designed to improve communication?
Let’s face it, the hard facts are: without a defined and agreed upon email practice, everyone is free to communicate any way they please.
Since there are as many views on email communication as individuals in a company, this leads to a large number of realities that can seriously hinder the productivity of an individual, let alone of the company
Allow me to illustrate this with three real-life examples:
1- Expected to be “always online”
A manager, driving at 7:15 am, receives a call from a sales rep (working from the same time zone). After the usual greetings the conversation is as follows:
- Sales rep: “What is your response?”
- Manager: “My response to what?”
- Sales rep: “To the email I sent.”
- Manager: “When did you send the email?”
- Sales rep: “30 minutes ago (i.e., 6:45am).”
2- “Choose your battles”
A drastic measure one manager has found to reduce the number of emails to process is the following:
never answer any email unless they come from upper management (which also means literally disregarding emails coming from their team or from peers unless management is copied).
3- “Who is the message for?”
During his first week in a company, a friend of mine was warned by a colleague about the number of emails that were received every day. He then decided to forward automatically all emails he was CCed on into a special folder.
After a week, he checked those emails to discover that most of the emails in which he was in the “TO” section were of limited interest to him, while a number of key emails, where he appeared in the CC section, demanded action from him.
As hard to believe as it seems, these are real-life examples some of us have been confronted with.
Let’s assess which improvements can easily be put in place to help dealing with emails in a healthy manner.
Among the basic questions are, for inbound emails, how to sort emails? Per topic? Using the First In, First Out method? Select per sender?
Let’s zoom in:
# 1- Do I have to open and read the email to know what it is about?
How many emails have explanatory titles allowing to differentiate those which expect an action from those which are for information purposes only? Implementing this will save a lot of valuable time when an email box is flooded with tens of emails.
A simple action will help: add either FYA (for your action) and FYI (for your information) to the subject line
#2 – If the message is really urgent, what about calling?
Let’s agree with the fact that it cannot be expected that everyone remains constantly up to date on screen-checking their emails.
So, when you are about to send an email, ask yourself: is the email really urgent?
If urgency is required, what about a call instead of an email?
Or a call to inform the recipients there is an urgent mail to process?
#3 – Who needs to read your email? And what is expected?
Ever received an email and wondered “why am I receiving this?”
Make it simple:
The TO field is dedicated for the people who need to know and might need to take action
The CC field is for people who need to be informed. Therefore, no action is needed and the email can be read at a later time.
These are basic features that everyone understands, but how are they used in practice?
#4 – Email loops? What about a meeting?
Email platforms are not the most effective for real-time communication.
Every one reading this has experienced the following: receiving a lengthy email where numerous people are copied.
Then, answers and comments and questions start pouring down.
As a result, you end up with a complex email chain.
To make things even more complex, there will always be one person (or more) who, instead of reacting to the last message, will react to an earlier (if not the first) instance, thus creating parallel communication streams. This is common when emails are read according to the LIFO (Last In, First Out) process.
How about a meeting to bring everyone up to speed?
#5 – Long emails? Make them easy to read!
A large number of emails are read on a smartphone.
The best practice is to have everything you need to know appear on the screen without having to scroll down.
What about a summary at the top of the email?
#6 – The “hot potato” or “once sent, the message is someone else’s responsibility”
Don’t consider an email as a hot potato that is designed end up on someone else’s plate or as an item thrown across the fence that releases you from your responsibilities.
Sending an email is no guarantee that it will be opened, and read, on the spot by the recipient(s) and that relevant action is taken. You recipients can take days off, they can be in meetings, they may be busy with other topics.
Who has never been through the following: having lunch with a colleague, discussing several items, then returning to your screen only to find out that the person you had lunch with had sent an email right before lunch about an important topic that was not discussed during your lunch together?
#7 – When are you supposed to read your emails…and take action?
What is the agreed-upon rule? Is there even a rule?
Should you be able to send emails whenever you want? At night, during your summer break, during your weekend?
And if so, when are you expected to read emails you receive and take action?
Should you read them during weekends?
After official working hours?
Make it simple:
Send emails whenever you want but do not expect anyone to take action, or read them, outside of working hours.
If emails are really urgent, then refer to item #2.
Let’s end this article with a couple of common “elephant(s) in the room”:
Putting a “Read-receipt” on every email you send
Just a simple question: what’s behind this practice? And what is your explanation to the recipients?
Do you really need to copy so many people to the email?
This is an open question.
Are emails the best medium for airing “dirty laundry”?
When dealing with complex business topics, some different viewpoints might need to be documented.
However, some messages should be carefully thought through before sending, certainly when the list of recipients in ‘copy’ is large.
Collaboration within a company is never a walk in the park.
It’s better to discuss different viewpoints in a face-to-face meeting, which will save lots of unnecessary emotions.
Writing an email is a difficult exercise.
The language used can appear as being more direct or more candid than when meeting in person.
Don’t begrudge the use of “to-the-point vocabulary”.
From experience, this item is even more complex when dealing in an internationally diverse organization where (written) communication styles differ.
Being self-conscious, as an individual and as a company, about the many pitfalls email communication can generate is a must when “being effective” is more important than “being busy”.
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