With home-working set to grow exponentially in the coming months, many of us are facing a situation in which email will dominate our work lives even more than it does today.
The unpopularity of email – and the levels of emotional overwhelm associated with it – are well documented. One solution is to try and migrate away from it altogether. But instead of replacing email, for many workers chat services such as Slack and WhatsApp simply end up as an additional communication channel. Cue a situation where supposedly labour-saving technologies actually create labour of the lowest value kind – the assimilation of to-do lists from multiple platforms.
Email is a tool like any other: it is neither innately good nor bad. And the desire to reduce or manage email does not need to become a binary world in which we either surrender ourselves to our inboxes or do away with them altogether.
Here are seven lesser-known email management strategies that will help lighten the load. And if any of this sounds obvious, experience suggests otherwise. In our practice, many highly capable client organizations are struggling to help their employees feel like part of one team when based remotely or working from home – and it often transpires that email misuse is part of the reason why.
1. Tackle your conflict avoidance issues
An ability to resolve conflict quickly and for the greater good is a principal indicator of a responsive and resilient culture. Conversely, misunderstanding conflict as fundamentally unhealthy – and therefore a state to be avoided – is a primary cause of stress and inefficiency in almost all businesses.
Suffering from overload? Emotions rather than emails might be your real problem. A significant swathe of inbox activity amounts to little more than poor conflict management. Many of us, it seems, would rather hide behind our screens than have a direct, uncomfortable conversation with another human being.
The solution? Forget tackling email, and instead address your poor conflict management head on. (Hire external support to assist with this if necessary.) Few people enjoy saying challenging things to others but, if you can get uncomfortable and embrace direct communication as a practice, you might see your time writing and responding to emails drop off a cliff.
2. Switch to voice notes
Misunderstandings about content or the implied tone of emails are another common source of inefficiency. The unfortunate reality is that many of us are not sufficiently capable communicators to guard against this – meaning that our emails sometimes create a far greater emotional wake than we intend.
The solution? The human voice is richer, more nuanced and more capable of communicating lots of information quickly than even the best email “auteur.” Voice notes are an underused method of passing on information – and they can be recorded and transmitted in minutes. Embrace them and watch tonal misunderstandings vanish.
3. Embrace the three-line rule
According to McKinsey, the average professional spends 28% of the working day reading and answering email. To place this into context, this statistic implies that your business employs around one in four people to do little more than read and write, full-time. (And not reading or writing exciting things, either: email.) This represents a significant hit to your organisation’s ability to solve the problems it faces quickly and well.
What to do? Set a rule that your internal emails should never be more than three lines long. This significantly reduces the time required to read and write, and by default relegates email to secondary status. It will also go some way to addressing point 1 (it is tough, although not impossible, to state a nuanced position within such tight space constraints).
Advanced tip: add a footer to your emails explaining this rule, and encouraging its use by others. (This also applies to other recommendations in this article.)
4. Break your addiction to the ‘cc’ box
Who is this email really for – and why?
Every additional person included on a ‘cc’ basis – on the assumption that they read the email in question – reduces organisational capacity elsewhere. Tally up the volume of cc’ing that takes place across most organisations, and it is clear that the impact of this regrettable habit is often exponential. Self-protectionism or showboating isn’t adequate justification for looping in endless people on every communication.
What’s the answer? Where possible, stop cc’ing people on your emails by embracing a strict “need to know” action standard. To encourage this, stop reading any email on which you are cc’d. The content is either of direct relevance to you or not – there are no halfway houses.
5. Set up five templates – and use them
The cognitive load of email is considerable: you need to read, consider and respond to each one in turn. Thinking time can be a greater drain than the actual reading and writing process itself.
The solution? Recognise that most emails can be separated into five buckets – and responded to accordingly:
- Noted: “Thank you for sharing this”
- Approval: “I agree with your suggestions – please proceed”
- Discussion needed: “Let’s take this off email and talk”
- Action needed: “By way of response, please can you now action the following items”
- Buying time: “I now need x hours or days to review this and come back to you with a fuller response”
Note that in each of the cases above it is possible to respond in either entirety or large part with a templated response. If you fear that doing so appears impersonal, it might be worth considering how you “contract” with your co-workers about your use of email. (Contracting refers to the agreements we make about how we behave in given situations.)
6. Respond via an alternative means
Most people’s default assumption is that an email requires an email in response. Because of this, every new email creates an exponential volume of email in return – particularly when multiple respondents and back-and-forths are involved. This might keep Outlook’s usage reports looking great, but doesn’t foster organisational agility.
The answer? Remember that you get the behavior you incentivise. So, incentivise better behavior by responding to people in ways that reflect how you want to be communicated with – and let social conditioning do the rest. If your people come to see that email is not your preferred channel, they will find other, potentially more efficient means of communication (although this can pose management challenges in itself).
7. Quit it
“If the news is important, it will find me,” – an influential comment from Barack Obama’s campaign research in 2008 – also holds true in business management. And this is not new: there is a long-standing school of Japanese management thinking that advocates making no decision on a course of action until the emergency lights are flashing.
In that spirit, the more radical amongst us may wish to ask: what’s the worst that can happen if I ignore my email for a long period of time – or, in fact, altogether? Of course, this relies on you being sufficiently valuable to your business that pushing against the flow in this way will be tolerated. But if email is best characterised as “other people’s to-do list for you,” opting out of it is a demonstration of true power.
Originally published on Forbes.com