Every Friday I write about a topic of particular interest to working parents who manage people.
I’m all about decreasing aggravation and increasing productivity for working parents. Email has come to play a big role in our lives; some days it’s a wonderful tool, others it causes a lot of frustration. Because email is such a pervasive form of office communication, bad email management can contribute to misunderstanding, poor directive, unresolved problems and low morale.
Unless they are your direct reports, you can’t change how others use email. However, you can manage e-mail related stress by controlling how you respond. Here are seven ways to answer office email more effectively:
1. Don’t respond to email in anger. It’s never a good idea to fight with co-workers, but email presents some special pitfalls. First of all, it’s written, so there is a record of the conversation that can be used against you. Second, because email usually sticks around in your inbox or deleted items folder for a while, it can be revisited, extending the bad feelings. Finally, because email is toneless, it’s possible that the negative feelings are a misunderstanding; a response in anger just fans the flames. If you sense tension in an email, it’s always best to call the sender and talk on the phone, or better yet, in person.
2. Manage the “reply to all” beast. Big questions directed to groups often lead to lengthy and unproductive email trains. Discussions like this are best held in a quick offline meeting where someone is tracking follow-up; when the answers become too involved, it might be a good time to suggest getting together in person to discuss. If you and your boss are included together, always talk with him/her before responding to the group. Along the “reply to all” lines, it’s great to broadcast relevant news to a group, but there’s no need to follow those emails with reply to all “congratulations” or “thank-yous.” I know that managers want to boost morale by publicly acknowledging staff achievement; do this at your company meetings, not over email.
3. Be clear. How many times have you gotten a response from your manager that doesn’t give clear directive? For example, you ask “Should we approach company X to buy more widgets? Do you have a contact there?” and the response is “Great!” Sometimes this happens when the manager doesn’t read email carefully; but often it betrays some ambivalence about the activity. If an employee asks a direct question, answer it directly, or take the discussion offline.
4. Use bcc sparingly, if at all. With the exception of sending mass email, there isn’t any reason to use the bcc option. For the office to be functional, it’s important that people know who has what information. If you are copying human resources, the employee should know about that. If you feel the need the bcc nearly anyone else, it’s probably not appropriate.
5. Don’t respond after working hours if you can help it. Nine out of ten emails that I get after 6:30pm are not emergencies, and don’t need immediate response. People are sending them because it’s convenient, or because they want to show off how late they are working. Often you often don’t have all the information you need to respond after hours, so replies can be half-baked. Better to wait and reply cogently the next day. (Of course we could all decide not to look at email at home, but that’s not a good solution — you want people to be on call for those few emergencies that do need immediate attention.)
6. Treat email like other kinds of professional communication. This means thoughtfully crafted copy, good spelling and grammar, appropriate use of punctuation. Miscommunication is heightened by poor writing — consider the difference between Eats Shoots & Leaves and Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the title of Lynne Truss’ terrific book on punctuation. Even more than an issue of professionalism (which it is), well-crafted email goes back to being clear.
7. Define assignments. Sometimes managers send email to multiple employees asking for a result without assigning people to complete particular tasks (or appointing a project manager to do so). It’s not fair to ask your employees to fight it out over projects, and it can lead to duplication of effort. Give specific instructions to individuals if you are asking a group of people to do something. If you are not sure who should do what, call a meeting with everyone to assign roles.
There is a terrific body of writing out there on professional email conduct, and I’ve tried not to duplicate existing content. Here are some good links on the subject; some are worth printing and distributing to your employees.
- Guy Kawasaki is a great writer and his post The Effective Emailer offers useful tips in a very witty and engaging way.
- Dennis Jerz, a professor at Seton Hill University, offers ten excellent and in-depth tips on writing effective email.
- Time Back Management has an interesting post on how companies are working to keep email from negatively affecting productivity.
- Stepcase Lifehack offers seven useful tips for handling your email without feeling overwhelmed.