An interesting and often sobering exercise is to discover from colleagues how much time is spent each day with emails. As consultants we take a keen interest in how people spend their time. This ‘data’ can yield vital clues about the way that an organisation operates e.g. where there are pinch points relating to workload. When emails are mentioned in their own right (rather than the activities that take place through the use of email) we know that the burden upon staff from emails is heavy.

Of course staff may need to be tied to their inboxes – because they are conversing with customers or using email to liaise with colleagues located at some distance away. But we have seen that when volumes become excessive behaviours around the use of emails can change, which in turn can have a powerful effect upon the culture in an organisation.

Within one organisation with whom we worked, the issues were so great that we assisted in the creation of an email policy that would help people to tame the beast.

Firstly we needed to recognise the issues:

  • Response time expectation was in minutes. People seemed unaware that someone may be in meetings all day and, unless they used a mobile device in meetings, would be unable to respond. But on the other hand, people in meetings were driven to distraction by colleagues who would be emailing on their mobile devices;
  • Auto-responses that said that the recipient was away for a period of time with no indication of what to do in the interim;
  • Staff were copied into correspondence unnecessarily, in particular through the ‘reply all’ button;
  • A lack of response which could easily create further work for the initiator e.g. through a phone call or a meeting. It could also lead minor issues becoming major problems;
  • The recipient’s email box was over the limit which meant that the sender had to make a phone call or catch the recipient at their desk;
  • Emails were sent asking for information that was easily available through other means (e.g. the intranet).

Solutions included:

  1. Develop a culture within which the anticipated response time is more realistic;
  2. Have people understand that there are very few real emergencies (not true for some organisations);
  3. Encourage people to have well designed automated responses that successfully manage expectations but not hold things up;
  4. Place the out of office message when out for a day or more and advise that it may be a few days before there is a response. Advise who to speak to in the meantime;
  5. Encourage people to pick up the phone to stop a huge trail of emails and attempt an ‘email free day’ at regular intervals;
  6. Train staff in how to be more efficient at managing emails;
  7. Introduce a practice where anyone who is cc’d within a message MUST NOT REPLY;
  8. Set up email groupings so that the correct people can be targeted all the time, and maintain the groups so that staff changes do not prevent the correct people from receiving an email;
  9. Colour code emails to distinguish different groups and to assist with prioritisation;
  10. Prompt staff to clear their email box on a regular basis, long before it becomes full, and regularly archive emails.

And finally, rules for email etiquette were defined and published:

We won’t automatically press “reply to all” or reply to those who are simply cc’ed into the email.

Sometimes emails are copied to managers purely to make a point, rather than directed to the person who is dealing with the matter at a local level. This can make that person feel disempowered, so we won’t condone or perpetuate this.

We won’t reply to or forward emails with a long thread beneath them, as some of the information may not be intended for the recipient(s).

Many matters are better dealt with face-to-face or with a telephone call. If it’s a long or complex matter, we will take a moment to think about the most suitable method before we start typing.

We won’t use our phone or other devices to email during meetings. (During our longer meetings we will build in five-minute breaks to check for anything urgent). We also won’t take phone calls during meetings except when there’s an emergency.

We won’t email you at the weekend (except in exceptional circumstances).

Although some people may choose to email at weekends, we do not expect you to do so, as we recognise the importance of downtime.

Our emails will be clear and brief, and we will recognise that brevity is a good thing. It is not a sign of rudeness.

We will avoid open ended questions that encourage long replies, and we will always be courteous.

We will publish a monthly record of email volumes to see which way the trend is pointing.

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Paul Clarke
Director
Develin Consulting Ltd

About the Author.  Paul Clarke is a Consultant and a builder of information systems that shed light on how time and cost is driven across organisations.