Do you measure your business productivity, in part, by the number of emails you send and respond to each day? Mentally, there’s some satisfaction in lobbing an email back over to someone else’s court for the next step. Done!
It can feel good to pound out an epic email to your team or snap off a lightning-quick “reply to all” from your phone while waiting in line for your midday pick-me-up (in this case a Caramel Macchiato). Tap, tap, done. But you might actually not be accomplishing much. Or worse, you might be wasting other people’s valuable time with one somewhat poorly considered click of the Send button at a time.
Email’s Hidden Evils
The startling reality (trust me on this) is that your habit of send-await response-reply ad nauseum is costing your company money and wearing down your coworkers. In 2012, McKinsey Global Institute reported workers spend approximately one-fourth of their day on email. That’s over two and a half hours each day (other reports suggest this number is closer to four hours)! Research also indicates the act of sifting through spam email costs the average company over $700 per employee each year in lost productivity.
In the three years’ since the release of the McKinsey report, our ingrained habits likely haven’t evolved. We’re still using email to bark directives and inch tactics and logistics along in our daily work. Keeping track of response sequence and any analog (in real life) activity related to the emailed topic is enough to bring business productivity to a screeching halt.
Which begs the questions: Are there better ways to manage internal communications than email? And can we do email better?
The Genesis of Email
The first email was sent in 1971. Its popularity rose in the 1990’s with the growth of the World Wide Web as consumers adopted the Internet. The 1998 movie release “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan put electronic communication in the spotlight. While AOL is no longer the powerhouse internet service provider it once was, the distinctive voice alerting users to new email is universally recognized. It symbolizes our culture’s growing reliance on technology to complete tasks, issue information, and connect with people from a distance. Therein might lie one of our problems.
Email Has a Time and Place
The ability to deliver a message worded exactly the way we may want, precisely when we want to, can be magic. Business email is relatively inexpensive to send and is a convenient means for distributing documents like spreadsheets, presentations, and photos. With email, you can direct someone to a specific web page by pasting a URL in the body. These qualities and others make business email a useful tool.
Do use email:
- To give simple, direct information or raise awareness.
- As a multi-pronged strategy for reaching someone
- To give praise or share positive news.
- When a documented record might be needed for future reference.
- To initiate a meeting or call where real dialogue will take place.
- To hand over resource documents or point someone to a digital asset
Email is one answer to business productivity, but not the only answer, and only if done well. But an overreliance on email for internal communications comes at a price. People can get lazy, be careless, use it as an excuse or ‘out,’ and take advantage of others with low risk of entanglement.
We’ve become a society comfortable with the emotional distance afforded by our computer and phone screens. By focusing on the task instead of the people we may be trying to talk with, we may lose some of our ability to empathize. Our emotional intelligence is left to atrophy.
Don’t use email:
- As a crutch to avoid difficult or awkward conversations.
- To deliver criticism or admonishment.
- To pass on sensitive or charged information.
- Any time asynchronous communication will deprive the reader of collaboration in the topic.
- When you need to explore complex situations or discuss multiple scenarios or contingencies. If you were speaking in person and might grab a pencil and napkin to talk it over with someone, that’s a good sign email isn’t the right fit.
Where Email Can Go Wrong
The written word is open to more interpretation than face-to-face or voice conversations are (“What did he/she mean by that?”). It lacks biofeedback cues like facial expression, eye contact, voice inflection, and body language. Tone and intent can easily be misinterpreted by the reader. This misinterpretation or uncertainty can be amplified in the workplace when the sender is a superior and the receiver is a subordinate, and any misunderstanding can cause undue stress or worry.
Unless the writer is intentionally drafting a lengthy and detailed email, most writers use email in situations when a few points need to be made or questions posed. These types of email are brief, sometimes created in haste or while multitasking. They may lack proper punctuation and syntax, and otherwise potentially poorly represent the writer. Quality, precise business communication may have gone the way of the dodo bird, as evidenced by some coursework offered by Duke University, University of California-Berkeley, and the Harvard Extension.
One of the great benefits of email—instant communication—may also be one of its drawbacks. Email can be saved indefinitely. It can also be forwarded. The original sender may have no knowledge in either situation. Which means something you may have intended for one person may actually be seen by many, or at an inopportune time. Good advice to consider: never type anything you don’t want everyone in your office to know.
How to Set a Good Example When Using Email
Email isn’t going away. It’s still a cornerstone of internal communications. But you can set a good example for how employees within your company can use email properly, and you can encourage others to change their habits as well.
- When issuing an email to multiple people, take care to include only those directly involved. Let those persons use their discretion to pass along any information to those who they deem might also need to know, in the manner they think most fitting. They might prefer to add context or selectively share details.
- Be specific when requesting any replies. For example, if you email a group of ten regarding an invoice discrepancy, you don’t want each of those ten “replying to all” with their comments. Business productivity goes down the drain sometimes by simple laziness.
- Review your email before pressing Send. Did you check spelling and grammar? Did you include any time, date, place, requirements, or other pertinent detail that’s critical to the recipient taking action? This could preempt a back-and-forth.
- Give people permission to take some time. Today’s expectation of instant response adds an element of pressure that isn’t important if you really value quality and authenticity. Who replies first is not a measure of that person’s commitment to the job.
- Encourage teammates to see you in person with any questions on any topic. Make your openness to face-to-face discussions and phone calls well known. Similarly, opt for passing on news and information in person sometimes rather than sending an email yourself.
Tools to Improve Internal Communications, Without Using Email
Information must flow in order for business to run. Fortunately there’s a growing number of tools to facilitate internal communications:
- Project managementand collaboration software like Basecamp, Asana, and Convo can largely replace email in the workplace. These hubs serve as a centrally accessible repository for all online conversations and file sharing about relevant work topics.
- Productivity tool Zapier allows users to automate certain digital tasks. So instead of sending an email each week to request a report of branded Twitter mentions or status of Trello cards, Zapier can handle these and myriad other duties without the email nudge.
- When you do use email, try Inbox Pause as a way to manage your inbox by throttling its “awake” state. And Boomerang can help you schedule emails for delivery later, while also issue you reminders for emailed matters that might need follow-up (perhaps in person?). Super new app is a way to prioritize, categorize, and visualize your email to save time and energy.
What You Can Do Right Now
If you change nothing else, begin doing these things right now to make your business’s internal emails less burdensome and more productive:
- Stop using the “reply to all” button. Just. Don’t. Use. It.
- Refrain from sending empty emails with simple inactionable replies like “Thanks” and “Got it.”
- Instead of typing emails when you’re on the train during your commute, use your phone to call people. It’s OK to leave a message. They might find your voice a refreshing change to the status quo.
- Don’t forward epic emails as FYI to someone. That’s for your convenience, not theirs. Don’t make them try to follow the breadcrumbs—summarize instead.