Can your team make email better?

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I was fourteen or fifteen when I got my first email address, which was a revelation because it allowed for instant and free communication. At the time, I was a kid with kid-like wonder for this amazing creation, and I never thought that:

  • Emails could eventually be sent to my phone after work hours and on weekends to compete with more important things for my attention
  • The two letters ‘cc’ would eventually become metaphors for ‘potential minefield of hate’.
  • Searching for the right information or file or document in an email would eventually steal hours of my life
  • An ever-so-slightly-too-large file attachment could make me want to toss a computer across a room

I wonder whether anyone imagined that email, in the 30 or so years since it was born, would evolve from the original free and instant message delivery system into something that we depend on so much, that we use so inefficiently and excessively, something that is often the most stressful part of the day.

While I have been part of teams that have incorporated instant messaging and project management applications and intranets into their communications, in many cases, people eventually slide back to email because email is familiar and easy and free and wonderful, and it is what the world has been using for the last 30 years.

So maybe the key is to help teams use email better, and to use it as part of a small handful of other communications tools. Because it is wonderful when used right.

1) Is your team too dependent on email?

The problem, says [global research and advisory firm] Forrester’s Koplowitz, is that “we use email for things it wasn’t designed to do.” Hooked on email, users default to it for scheduling, workflow, resource management, archiving, document management, project management, and even knowledge management, where ideas that should be shared widely are instead locked up in an email chain among a narrow list of recipients. “The things it does poorly have become problematic.”

Email addiction: Why the enterprise can’t break free Computer World. 19 March 2013

Have you seen a team, a floor, an entire organisation, addicted to email for communication? They are eerily quiet. People talk less than they should. People send an email instead of starting a conversation. People stop learning about one another. And the potential for miscommunication and delays is tremendous.

Or maybe you have been part of an organisation that depends on email to send you everything from feel-good corporate pats on the back, to colleagues’ birthday announcements, to job vacancies, most of which have no relevance to you, and all of which can be distracting.

Email is great until it starts doing the things it was never to do. It becomes a major problem when people start using it as a substitute to human interaction.

2) Is your team always sharing files over email?

Sending a file to someone’s inbox is somewhat like sliding it under their locked door. In some cases, that makes sense. But if other people need that file, you have a problem.

Sure, you can send that file to everyone’s inbox, but now you have several versions of it, which is at best inefficient and at worst hazardous, especially if you do not keep on top of all the edited versions that pop up in future.

Two days after sending your file to your teammates for revisions, you are pulling your hair out while searching for a version named something like internal strategy meeting minutes_SC_NS_ED_SC_v2_5.24.13_final FINAL last final.

If you have ever relied on this system of attaching and sending and renaming documents, then, guaranteed, you have experienced a meltdown of this system, and possibly one of your own. Instead, put your files somewhere central, where they can pulled down by relevant teammates at any time. There is a far smaller risk of mixing up versions.

Tools like Google Drive, Dropbox, Basecamp, and Flickr and intranets do vastly different things, but they can all help you store files centrally and help you break the guaranteed-to-stress-you-out habit of sharing files over email.

Centrally stored large files are also easier to share because you can do not have to worry about maximum limits for email attachments. Instead of attaching a file to an email, you can just insert a link that takes your teammates to wherever the file is stored.

This simple shift in the way that your team shares files will immediately make you faster, more efficient, and more competitive. Imagine what that can do for you in the long run.

A quick note about file-sharing: do check with the relevant folks on your team to make sure that you are falling within the file-sharing IT guidelines of your organisation. Some organisations have restrictions against cloud-based file-sharing.

3) Is email possibly stunting your team’s development of institutional knowledge?

If your team’s priceless discussions, advice and decisions are all hidden like needles in haystack inboxes, imagine how much quicker the orientations of new teammates’ could be if much of that gold dust was stored centrally, where newer folks could develop their institutional knowledge so much more quickly.

Think about how sharing questions and answers and discussions on a social network or an intranet or an online project management tool could help everyone learn from one another.

Imagine how much institutional knowledge could be retained when older teammates and their inboxes move on.

Think about communicating on a platform that is more open to the team than email. Instead of sending links for helpful online articles over email, for instance, send them somewhere central, where they can easily be accessed in future without the need to look back into an inbox.

11 ways to make email (and teamwork and the workplace) better

I am finally regaining a bit of that kid-like wonder for email because it now does what it was originally intended to do (and not too much more), and it is now part of a better system of communication that includes a small handful of other tools.

Questions and answers are now more in the open. Files are more often stored centrally. The delivery of emails are scheduled to arrive in the mornings of workdays, not in the evenings or on weekends.

There are some great online resources out there that discuss better email management. Here is what some of them say:

1) Take the time to keep emails short whenever possible. Business guru Guy Kawasaki promotes the concept of the 5-sentence email, which is actually a fairly good practice more often than not.

As French philosopher, inventor and writer Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657: I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

Productivity lifesaver: the 5-sentence email. Entrepreneur.com, 8 May 2012

2) Write email subject headings that are helpful, reader-friendly, and likely to get your email opened and responded to. According to MailChimp, possibly the most well-known email marketing and email list management application, a study of over 200 million emails showed that emails with a subject heading of 28-39 characters had the highest click rate.

How to write the perfect email subject heading [infographic]. Unbounce.com

The art of the email subject line. Bloomberg Business Week, 28 June 2012

Odd Obama Email Subject Lines Drew Huge Cash. ABCnews.com, 29 November 2012

3) If you have not already, try getting to ‘inbox zero’, or a manageable number of unread emails.

Zero Dark Inbox. The New Yorker, 11 December 2012

What your email inbox count says about you. The Atlantic Wire, 11 December 2012

4) Keep difficult or delicate subjects to meetings.

5) If you need time to respond in detail to an email, consider replying quickly and saying that you will be in touch again later.

9 rules of email etiquette. Huffington Post, 8 March 2013

6) Set aside time and space in your life where emails do not enter. Be conscious of the impact that receiving an email can have on the mindsets of your teammates, particularly during those times that they have reserved for family or friends, or for things that, at the end of the day, are quite possibly far more important than an email.

Firms tell employees: Avoid after-hours e-mail. Washington Post, 21 September 2012

7) Consider setting workplace guidelines of when email is appropriate. In an article for Inc.com (see below), Margaret Heffernan refers to eBay’s management decision to ban weekend emails, and Sainbury’s decision to introduce email-free Fridays in order to encourage more face-to-face communication.

Why You Should Ban Email (Sometimes). 22 May 2013, Inc.com

8) Think about the device on which your audience may receive your emails. Laptop, tablet, mobile? In the car? On the train? Specifically, optimise your emails for the mobile phone.

Making email mobile friendly. The Wall, 20 May 2013

9) Consider getting an online application that will deliver your emails when you want them to be received. If you write an email at 23:00 on the last day of the work week, you can schedule it to be delivered at 7:00 on the first day of the work week. For this, I use Right Inbox.

These email delivery applications are particularly helpful when you need to write more than one email to someone because they can send all your emails at once, meaning that person can review your emails at once, respond at once, and then concentrate on other tasks, rather than receiving your emails in drips and drabs.

One bonus with email delivery applications: if you write an email in the evening and schedule its delivery to your teammates at, say, 7:00 in the morning, then your email is far more likely to be near the top of your teammates’ inboxes when they open it.

Right Inbox review. PC World, 10 September 2012

Optimize your email capabilities with Right Inbox. BakBurner Digital, 1 February 2013

10) If you need to send a large file, consider uploading it first to somewhere central, and then send your teammate a link to that file instead of an email attachment. I use a combination of Dropbox and Google Drive.

Can I share files with non-Dropbox users? Dropbox.com

Gmail and Drive – a new way to send files. Official Gmail Blogspot blog, 27 November 2012

11) Consider setting up email signatures for your mobiles and tablets, as these can explain your short messages (and possible typos).

Email Etiquette: 8 Essential Dos and Don’ts. Mashable.com, 20 September 2012

And finally, two solutions that are working for me

The web-based project management tool Basecamp has worked for me in more than one team. Try it.

And if you want a better way to collaborate and share ideas among teammates, consider this: the humble secret Facebook Group.

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