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09 May

When your e-mail isn’t being helpful

Datum: 2012-05-09 12:00

I have nev­er encoun­tered any­one who com­plains over receiv­ing too few e‑mails or some­one who was unhap­py due to e‑mails being too short or too con­crete.

And very few orga­ni­za­tions or com­pa­nies tell me the com­mu­ni­ca­tion occur­ring through CC:-ing is at a rea­son­able level. 

And yet we still choose e‑mails before oth­er forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion when we could make a dif­fer­ent choice sev­er­al times a day.

And it’s no won­der.

E‑mailing is effi­cient since it enables you to deliv­er a mes­sage to some­one who is not avail­able at the pre­cise moment we wish to con­vey it, and do so faster than by reg­u­lar mail.

It is much more con­ve­nient to send a link than try to put a URL into words over the phone. The e‑mail is also much eas­i­er to store for future ref­er­ence than the spo­ken word. 

The inbox – a jungle

But in many of the orga­ni­za­tions and com­pa­nies I encounter in my work, the e‑mail­ing-cul­ture has got­ten way out of line, and e‑mailing has gone from being a help­ful tool to being a source of severe frus­tra­tion.

The car is also a ter­rif­ic and flex­i­ble tool, only it is intend­ed to aid us in some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent – to trans­port ourselves.

But, you aren’t enti­tled to put the ped­al to the met­al just because you have bought a car, and dri­ve accord­ing to your own pref­er­ences. We have agreed to fol­low cer­tain rules to make traf­fic safe for every­one.

Just as we reg­u­late traf­fic by rules to make it func­tion smooth­ly, we can define guide­lines regard­ing how to use the phe­nom­e­nal tool which the e‑mail con­sti­tutes in order to make the e‑mail-traf­fic with­in the com­pa­ny more func­tion­al; in oth­er words, we can cre­ate an e‑mailing pol­i­cy.

If we do this, and agree upon how to e‑mail each oth­er (at least with­in the com­pa­ny), we make it pos­si­ble for the tool to become tru­ly func­tion­al again.

By cre­at­ing con­struc­tive rules we can receive few­er e‑mails with­out receiv­ing less infor­ma­tion. We can have more time over for the tru­ly impor­tant mat­ters since we needn’t waste ener­gy on hes­i­tat­ing, ask­ing com­ple­men­tary ques­tions or mis­un­der­stand­ing each oth­er, since the e‑mails are more con­crete and clear now. 

Do this

Cre­ate an e‑mail policy.

  1. Mean­ing, agree on what you need to do in order to make e‑mailing an effi­cient tool in your par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion. If you are self-employed you can still cre­ate your own pol­i­cy, make sure to fol­low it and feel pleased when you notice how your e‑mailing eti­quette is infec­tious as oth­ers begin to mim­ic your method.
  2. A good way to get start­ed in the con­struc­tion of your pol­i­cy is to nar­row down what needs to be reg­u­lat­ed in your orga­ni­za­tion. I have list­ed the most recur­ring rules I have encoun­tered in the orga­ni­za­tions I have worked with: 
    • Expect­ed time to respond to an e‑mail
    • Which e‑mails that have the high­est priority
    • Try to call first, and then send an e‑mail?
    • What type of infor­ma­tion you nev­er send by e‑mail (due to con­fi­den­tial­i­ty, for instance)
    • Link to files or attach them?
    • Change the sub­ject-line if the sub­ject of the e‑mail changes?
    • What the sig­na­ture should contain
    • The appro­pri­ate length of e‑mails
    • How should you orga­nize tasks and ques­tions? By 1,2,3… and so on?
    • Appro­pri­ate greet­ing- and closing-phrases
    • One sub­ject per e‑mail or several?
    • If it is impor­tant to have a clear head­ing and sub­ject-line for each e‑mail or not
    • When to send CC:-mail…
    • …and when to use BCC:
    • When to forward…
    • …and how to approach a FWD: you received
    • If it is OK to sub­scribe to
    • Is it OK to send per­son­al e‑mails using the office e‑mail?
    • How to act if you should receive an offensive/​racist/​sex­ist e‑mail
    • How to han­dle a con­flict you get into with some­one via e‑mail. Do you keep argu­ing via e‑mail, do you pick up the phone or should you arrange a meet­ing to dis­cuss the matter?
    • Should you start a long e‑mail with a short summary?
    • What to do when the sub­ject-line begins with Re: Re: Re: Fwd: RERE:.
  3. You are for­tu­nate if you are in an exec­u­tive posi­tion of some kind since you have the man­date to push for this mat­ter by your­self. But if you aren’t you can bring this mat­ter onto the agen­da in any nat­ur­al forum for dis­cus­sion exist­ing in your orga­ni­za­tion. High­light what­ev­er issues you are expe­ri­enc­ing con­cerned with e‑mailing in your com­pa­ny, and make it clear how things would be dif­fer­ent if you had bet­ter guide­lines to adhere to.
  4. In order for you to nev­er feel as if the pol­i­cy is just anoth­er set of rules you have to fol­low because the boss said so”, make it vivid­ly clear what the con­crete and pos­i­tive con­se­quences of adher­ing to every rule will be. After each rule you could write “, since…” fol­lowed by a descrip­tion of the pos­i­tive effects it will have. For instance, When­ev­er you e‑mail, be brief, since this will enable the receiv­er to han­dle the e‑mail faster and hence be able to send you a reply faster as well.”

Coop­er­a­tion is key

If you agree upon what to con­sid­er when e‑mailing, you can all rely on these guide­lines in a pos­i­tive man­ner in your dai­ly work. Instead of feel­ing unsure of how quick­ly a reply is expect­ed of you, you can rely on what you have dis­cussed and act in accor­dance to that.

Even if not every­body will adhere to the new set of rules all of the time, the part of your work con­duct­ed through e‑mails will become eas­i­er and smoother since more e‑mails will be short­er, few­er will be sent as a CC:, a greater quan­ti­ty will have descrip­tive sub­ject-lines, and so on.

Since we spend such a large por­tion of our time in our inbox”, wouldn’t you also agree that mak­ing this part of our work more struc­tured is well worth the effort?

How would you do it?

What e‑mail­ing-rule could you real­ly use at your office? Leave a com­ment to let me and oth­er read­ers know.