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The uncomfortable truth about email

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Although email is now an intrinsic part of the modern workplace1 many people cite managing their inbox as a major problem preventing them from getting on with their job.

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Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Howard Lake

No one is immune from an inbox that multiplies faster than proverbial rabbits. A quick search will introduce you to countless companies hoping to sell you software or training courses to help you fix this problem. But before you get out your chequebook, consider if the cause of the problem is a little closer to home. I’ve had an inkling for a while that my problem email is not just about managing my inbox and extends into the negative cultures my email use is unconsciously supporting.

I did an experiment at work recently and asked everyone in the team to tot up how many emails they received over a week and how many distributions lists the were subscribed to (for work related emails only). A simple exercise but the results were very revealing - thanks to Festus for doing the data collection and analysis.

Over those 5 working days, I received 397 emails to my work address [note: I use my personal email address anything that isn’t specifically work related - alerts, mailing lists, RSS etc so those aren’t included in this total]. I thought this was a high number, but I didn’t come close to a colleague who received 559 emails during that week. However I did top the table for the person subscribed to the most distribution lists. The average for the team was 6 and I’m signed up to 12...

Results for BIS Digital team (17 March to 21 March 2014)

  • Total number of emails received: 3,966
  • Average number of groups people belong to: 6
  • Average number of emails received per person: 220
  • Total number of distribution lists the team : 41

Seeing the hard data has been really helpful for me to flush out some of the silent things we tell ourselves to justify how we use email.

Receiving a high volume of email means that I’m busy and needed

Being able to moan about the number of emails you get has become to feel more like a badge of honour in the workplace. Think about the opposite - if the number of emails you receive each day started to decline, would you worry that something was wrong? What if we could tell ourselves that receiving fewer emails was actually something to be proud of and that we were using more effective means of keeping up-to-date and not a sign that we weren’t included?

The more distribution lists I’m added to, the more likely I am to be across all the key information and issues

I’m sure someone somewhere has done a scientific paper on this, but I’ll take a stab at estimating that the volume of information we have to digest at work is increasing by, well, a lot. Our brains and ability to digest information through reading hasn’t gone through a similar rate of improvement. So frankly, despite receiving all those emails, I’m actually only skimming a few, deleting a lot and wasting time pretending I’m performing a valuable task…

Sending a lot of email on a issue demonstrates my ability to manage a project and update my key stakeholders

Although it’s tempting to think that by copying in lots of people to all my emails I’m keeping them informed, I bet they’d prefer fewer, shorter emails with clear actions. And no one really wants to be copied into an email with just the word ‘thanks’. If you want to say thank you to someone in front of the group, be fulsome and explain exactly what you are grateful for. Otherwise, why not cut down on the traffic and just reply to the individual?

The faster I reply to an email the more on top of issues I show myself to be to the group

Ok, so if there is a crisis breaking, it’s important to make sure everyone is aware and on top of it. But outside of this legitimate need to respond quickly, I’ve seen this turn unhealthily competitive and be used by junior staff to demonstrate their greater commitment to the team / job / boss / cause / promotion. Why not hold off sending that mundane email to your team until Monday morning? You’re not helping people manage a work / life balance if you’re always luring their attention back to work and away from their families...

Email allows me to bring some of my personality into work [finger gun]

All journalists who started off in local media will tell you a story of having to read letters from a regular contributor who wrote in green ink. Editors still look out for it. Green ink allowed you to spot the impassioned person whose advice or reflections on your journalistic efforts could at best be described as ‘unbalanced’ or a trifle unorthodox. Never fear, despite the digital age, you can still spot these people when using email, They will be the people who think it’s appropriate to use comic sans or cutsie handwriting typefaces in their signatures. Just don’t let that be you.

People will be impressed by my intelligence if I write in the most lengthy, convoluted and unclear manner possible

Tone can be really hard to get right in the workplace. Too formal and you alienate your audience with awkward phrases like ‘please revert’ or incorrectly using the reflexive ‘respond to myself’. Too informal and you risk being back in green ink camp with the people who overuse exclamation marks, text abbreviations and smilies. Get to know your audience and earn the right to be informal. Review other people’s correspondence and reflect the tone the group adopts. But if you want to write a full report, email isn’t the place to do it. Write a document and use email to share it with a paragraph that picks out the key recommendations and actions required.

Email isn’t the high tech super speedy version of writing a letter and posting it, it has very different rules for use and etiquette. If it’s related to any message delivery system, its probably that child the teacher picked to take a note or package to another teacher in the school. Despite picking the most reliable child, she’d still give a very simple instruction (a clear question or a request) and then only allow him to take a friend if it really warranted it. Simple tasks, expressed clearly with a defined outcome for a discrete audience.

The uncomfortable truth about email is that if you’ve got a problem with it, you’re probably to blame. But that does mean you can do something about it. Why not start reviewing your own use of email and the cultures you’re supporting through the way you correspond with your colleagues. Perhaps come off some of those distribution lists, decide not to send that email on the weekend or get up and speak to your colleagues to thank them for their hard work. We’re planning on running the same experiment at the end of the year to see if we can get each improve our individual relationships with our email. I’ll let you know how we get on. We’d be glad to hear any tips or advice you’ve found useful too so do get in touch.

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  1. Comment by Liz Baldock posted on

    It's funny isn't it - the pressure we put on ourselves to be all things to all people at all times. I think our relationship with email really reflects that. I recently suggested to a very busy colleague, that she turned her email off for a while, so that she could concentrate on the copy she needed to write. She almost laughed me out the office! It is such a simple thing to do, but it takes real willpower to do it.

  2. Comment by Daniel Pavlyuckov posted on

    Hello, I'm Daniel, CEO of Mailburn, email client for business people.

    Its' great that you mentioned that amount of emails you write is not the measure of your productivity. So many people fall in this trap and try to send as much as possible, and as long and windy as they can. No email client or startup can fix this, I wish we had a manifest on how to use email for business.

    Best, Daniel.


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