The Trouble with Emails – Part II

The Trouble with Emails
How to mitigate the hassle with emails

In the first part of this article we focused on our priorities and I introduced a simple method how to structure your inbox in order to keep focus on the important things. Thinking about your desiered outcome is essential: selecting the right channel and setting the right response expectations determine the efficiency of your email conversation. But there are way more uncovered hurdles to take when sending out and receiving emails.

How can we tackle these issues? Which strategies do exist to escape from the hamster wheel? And which of those really increase our productivity and that of others? Let´s have a closer look at the root causes, examine their correlations, and step into solutions that make mails work for you.

„Reply to All“ or „The cc-syndrome“

In any case take a second to think about who you want to contact and for which reason. Which kind of information are you asking for? Or do you just want to convey information to your recipients? And then take another second to be thoughtful on whom you put in “cc”. We often tend to copy the world in our emails, and especially our manager presumably needs to be in cc constantly. But be aware that copying people in emails interrupts the actual dialogue and transports information only in an indirect way. Make sure you address the right people in the right way to save time on both sides as we know that these mail conversations often go back and forward for several days. The “cc syndrome” is often embedded in people that feel the need to prove hard work and contribution. Even worse, when they think they need full backing by the cc´ed managers. That´s only suggestive for low empowerment and trust.

Be strict and cautious about whom you put in copy, and do not hesitate to drop people off your mailing list when you feel there´s no contribution for them. Also communicate clearly what the cc´ed people are expected to provide and set norms e.g. those in cc are included for information purposes only. In that way you discourage them to participate actively in the conversation which reduces the interruption of the flow at the one hand, and takes off pressure to respond and react on the other hand.

TLDR: Keep it crisp

An email is no novel. However, I often receive emails that could easily fill a couple of pages of a book. Okay, that might be a bit exaggerated, but it´s true anyway: no one reads long emails. There are those colleagues that try to put all the information they collected during the day in their notes in one email, and then they shoot it out to the world. If you make your way through all that information you might find the important request for action at the end. The issue with that is that some people do not even get to this point, and if they do they are likely to miss half the information on the way. Please do not bother your peers with such kind of emails otherwise you might face a TLDR (too long, didn´t read) response.

Have you been forwarded a link to an interesting article? Probably the mail was similar to that one:

To: Max Smith

From: Manager Joe

Subject: FW: An interesting article

Hi Max,

I recently came across this article, which I found very interesting. 
I thought it matches well with our previous discussion about XYZ, 
and it has this positive point about ABC. It also has this [...] 
negative point of view.

What do you think?

Best regards,

Joe

To: Manager Joe

From: Anni Researcher

Subject: An interesting article

....

What about this version? The good thing about the second version is that a) the mail content is clear, b) the request for action is clear, c) there is no bias due to the own opinion of the sender, and last but not least d) you can scan it and still get everything.

To: Max Smith

From: CEO John

Subject: FW: An interesting article

Any thoughts?

To: CEO John

From: Anni Researcher

Subject: An interesting article

....

Another very simple instrument is the subject line: use it to set expectations right. What can you find in this email? What are the recipients supposed to do with it? What´s the content of the mail? All these questions can be answered in a well-chosen subject line. Keep it short and precise, and set standard prefixes that help your audience to classify your mail e.g. when it´s not time critical. Here are some examples:

Info: Project XYZ – New Insights and Report charts // FYI: Sales Report 2018 // ACT  or ACT urgent: New Legal Requirements 01.01.2019 // Friendly Reminder: Provide input for Customer Satisfaction Survey // Decision: Project XYZ – Budget Planning // Update: Project Status XYZ – Green

Finally, think through the design of your mail: put important information first to make sure that they are at least scanned, highlight necessary actions and put background information at the end. Stick to some simple rules:

  • Subject line content
  • Keep it short
  • Keep the language simple
  • Actions or decisions at the start
  • Background information later

 

After all go with what works for you and keep it as simple as possible for yourself. At the end of the day you probably won´t change the email culture of your company, but you can work on influencing it in a way that is not only more efficient for you but also for your colleagues. Set a good example and go with rules that add a great contribution to the effectiveness of everyone.

Think about your communication strategically: what are your priorities? Who is your audience? What is your message? What is your expected action?

Be considerate: Receiving mails at 2am in the morning stresses you in the next morning? Sure, it does! So think about it before shooting out an email at 6pm on Friday.

Be self-organized: set your priorities right and align your actions accordingly.

Be clear: communicate the goal, set expected responses and actions, “cc” only the ones that are necessary

Be mindful: Don´t let emails become a symbol of stress. Turn off all mailing programs when you don´t want to be distracted and protect yourself when you´re deep into work. Communicate those times clearly to your team.

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