“One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus.” – Jacqueline Leo, American magazine editor and media producer.
Email has revolutionized global business, allowing for detailed 24-hour communication where telephone communication isn’t practical, freeing us from bending over backwards to match up times zones across a large planet. Most of the same people who understand its advantages probably also consider email the bane of their existence, since they receive hundreds of messages a day. Like most technology, email has proven a double-edged blade, its nearly miraculous advantages often offset by pure annoyance.
With a few precautions and a modicum of care and protocol, email offers invaluable benefits for team communication ( ←CLICK TO TWEET), whether your team works together in the same building or in locations across a continent—or the world.
Living in the Future
Electromagnetic radiation can sprint around the circumference of the Earth nearly eight times per second in a vacuum. Most transmission media don’t even approach the purity of a vacuum, and needless to say, an electronic communication usually has to jump from one type of transmission medium to another numerous times before it reaches its destination. Yet all this has become more or less automatic, and we’ve relentlessly upgraded the infrastructure ever since telegraphy gave rise to telephony and linked up the world. Now when something happens, we can learn about it in seconds.
With the rise of the Internet came a hybrid method of communication that merged electronic communication with the ancient art of letter writing, to the point that it’s all but replaced the latter—a prime example of a technological offspring displacing the parent through evolution. For all that many people have bemoaned the loss of detailed snail mail conversations, few have actually stuck with it in the face of much speedier and cheaper electronic mail.
Email has thoroughly permeated the business world since its wide introduction in the 1980s, and for good reason; it replaced memos, allowed the sending of large documents, provided quick responses, and even eased the meeting burden for most of us. We can ask and answer questions without leaving our desks, promoting increased productivity. Of course, it also became an entry point for unwanted advertising and self-defeating timewasters like joke and list forwarding, chain letters, issues that could have been handled more quickly with a phone call, miscommunication through misinterpretation (lacking tone), and other junk we never bothered with when interoffice mail, memos, and calls comprised our chief means of information exchange.
While some of this has settled out as we’ve become more mature email users, and spam-killers and filtering methods have become easier to use, we still waste too much time with email. According to some sources, we spend as much as 28% of the average workday reading email, replying to it, or regaining focus broken by responding to email alerts.
Your team can save a surprising amount of time, thus boosting productivity, simply by adopting a few rules of protocol.
- Turn off email alerts! Email has been neither new nor rare for decades. Rather than leave those “dings!” on to distract you and encourage instant response, deactivate them. Instead, set a rule if you’d like to play a sound when an important client or your boss emails you.
- Don’t live in the inbox. Try to check your email fewer than 10 times per day. For emails requiring a future response or “work,” click the Move button and select Tasks to move it to your to-do list. Don’t use your inbox like a to-do list! If you don’t get it done, Tasks roll forward, unlike the calendar, where you would “lose” it and have to manually move it forward or change the date.
- Stop it with the “Me too!” or “I agree!” or “Thanks!” messages. If you’re simply replying “thanks” to have a record in your Sent Items, stop it! Simply drag the email from the Inbox to the Sent Items, where it’s the exact same record and search, showing it was sent to you. Unless the recipient specifically requests you acknowledge the receipt, you don’t have to say “thanks” every time a team member does his or her job. Make that clear in a future team meeting, so there are proper expectations and no hurt feelings.
- Get to the point. Summarize what you need upfront. Bullet point or number any action items, with clear deadlines. Attach any documents or history, rather than writing a three-page email. Pithy, concise emails save time, focus, and energy.
- Use simple signature files. Rather than use a signature file that includes lots of graphics and multiple lines, hyperlinks, and graphics that end up as attachments when your emails are forwarded, consider a few simple lines including your website and phone number. Some email readers can’t handle complex signature files.
- Proofread and edit your messages. The more professional they look, the better. Use proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar, not all caps or all lowercase, which are perceived as laziness. Don’t use texting language in emails outside the company!
- Use a clear, direct subject line. This lets the recipient determine whether it’s something they want or need to answer. Because so many people working on their phones, use codes in the subject line to convey action or even the message itself, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open it.
- Don’t “Reply to All.” Don’t use “reply to all” as a way to attempt to brainstorm with a group of people—it’s simply not sufficient. Trying to do this with email will just clutter up everyone’s Inboxes with rapidly growing email threads.
As a last reminder, while email can’t replace a good meeting, it can cut down on the need for them. Team members can answer simple questions in moments, and you can determine who really needs to attend particular meetings when you don’t require the entire team. But when it comes to a meaty subject or a need to discuss team direction or fix a process, email isn’t the best. In some cases, a quick phone call can save a lot of time and back-and-forth emails, too, especially if explaining something by email takes too long, or you just communicate better by phone.
So choose your method of response carefully. As handy as it may be, email doesn’t work best for all team communication.
© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.