When email was first launched within the walls of IBM in the early 1980’s, no one predicted how quickly it would become such a popular communication channel, nor how it would evolve very little over the course of 35 years. Email has remained largely the same since its inception: a series of messages containing information and tasks (big and small) from a variety of internal and external senders, arriving in an undifferentiated inbox. From here, it’s up to the receiver to sort through the messages and determine the best way to tackle the workload, often leading to an ad hoc, reactive workflow. This process results in reduced productivity and lack of focused time to complete meaningful work. In a Harvard Business Review article making a case to eliminate email, Cal Newport said, “Put simply, this workflow, which can transform even the highest skilled knowledge workers into message-passing automatons, is making an entire sector of our economy miserable.”
What seems like a convenient communication channel for both the sender and receiver (in theory) has multiple drawbacks:
It’s used as a catch-all communication channel, but it’s often not the best tool for the job.
The tone of the message and/or context can be misunderstood.
There are different response time expectations – from minutes to hours to days.
There’s no easy way to delegate tasks to a group and things can be easily missed.
It’s neverending and it can be mentally draining to wake up to a full inbox each morning (not to mention the guilt felt when you don’t check your email regularly or check but don’t respond to important messages).
Furthermore, software giant, Atlassian, commissioned a study about the true cost of email in the workplace and it revealed some shocking statistics:
Employees receive an average of 304 business emails each week (approximately 60 each work day).
Employees check their email 36 times each hour on average.
It takes 16 minutes to refocus after responding to an email.
So, is there a better way?
This is the question fellow email skeptic, Mark Corrigan, and I set out to answer. Through personal experience working in small and large companies, both face-to-face and completely remotely with colleagues, as well as external research on the topic, we’ve come up with three levels of solutions to tackle this pervasive problem.
“Level 1 Solutions” are low-tech and require no special software. They are relatively simple and therefore easy to implement quickly. “Level 2 Solutions” make use of the software applications that you’re probably already using, with tips on how to use them more effectively. “Level 3 Solutions” rethink the need for email altogether. While that may seem impossible, there are solutions available that are successfully used within companies of all sizes.
Level 1 Solutions
Establish Routines and Rituals
If you know that you’re really productive in the morning, don’t start your day doing the “busy work” of answering emails. Instead, dive into uninterrupted work that matters most and tackle email after a couple of hours. Interruptions at work can lead to huge issues with productivity, as well as job satisfaction. Deep, meaningful thinking requires distraction-free focus, concentration, and uninterrupted time to think (and this is really the core duty of the modern knowledge worker!) Furthermore, get into the habit of checking your email only a couple of times each day at routine intervals (eg. 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.), which keeps you on-task doing meaningful work, versus constantly checking your distracting inbox.
There are vastly different expectations when it comes to how quickly you need to reply to your email messages depending on your organization and your clients. The expectation to reply after work hours increases dramatically, especially when companies provide you with a phone for personal use.
If there are no specific email reply timeline policies within your workplace, it’s still socially acceptable to respond within about 24 hours. A 2014 study by Toister Performance Solutions (a customer service consulting company) revealed that 43.4% of participants favour the one business day response time, but just as many participants (43.9%) expect response times faster than 24 hours.
To clarify response time expectations, consider creating an auto-response message that tells senders what time of the day you check email, how long they can expect to wait for a reply, as well as alternate forms of communication (your phone number), or other people to contact if it’s urgent. You can also state that you prefer real-time communication methods (a phone call or in-person meeting, for example), which might make senders think twice before sending you an email in the future. The underlying truth is that senders don’t necessarily need an immediate response (that’s what real-time communication is for), but they want to know that their message was received and that you’re not going to ignore it. An auto-reply message accomplishes both of these tasks. If they receive it often enough, they will be consistently reminded that they’re not being ignored, and instead, they’re being strategically prioritized. You may even begin to receive auto-responses from others who like your style.
The 2-Minute Rule
This strategy is simple: if an email message can be dealt with in two minutes or less, DO IT NOW. Don’t waste time re-reading it and responding to it later.
Encourage your management team to remind employees about email etiquette. For example:
Use the “To:” field for individuals you would like a reply from.
The “Cc:” field is for individuals who need to know the information, but from whom you don’t expect a reply.
The “Bcc:” field can be used to keep multiple people in the know, but receivers are unable to “Reply All” to everyone who was Bcc’d on the email. (This is a useful trick to avoid unnecessary “Reply All’s”.)
Don’t “Reply All” unless you have something to contribute or something meaningful to add. (Don’t “Reply All” with “thanks” or “okay”, for example.)
Highly-sensitive or emotionally-charged topics should not be communicated via email.
Institute Office Hours
In a 2016 article published by the Harvard Business Review entitled A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email, the author suggests taking a nod from academia and instituting office hours. The goal is synchronous and active communication (versus email’s asynchronous and passive communication) and the strategy is simple. Each employee posts two or three blocks of time in the day when they can be interrupted and when they will be available in-person, by-phone, or via instant messaging. Outside of these “office hours”, you cannot command the attention of the employee and they are left to work uninterrupted. This helps create a more structured way to plan your day because you know when people will need your attention and when you can command the attention of others. Additionally, speaking in real-time can often lead to better solutions and ideas. Face-to-face interactions can spark ideas that may not have been realized within the silo of email. Notably, office hours may work really well for internal communication, but less well (or nearly impossible) for communicating with external clients.
Write with Extreme Clarity
Generally speaking, short emails are much better than long ones. Use simple language, be specific, and have a single call-to-action at the end of an email. It should clearly state what you, the sender, want from the receiver (“Can you please send me a copy of invoice #333?”). Another strategy for writing with extreme clarity is using “if, then statements”. Tim Ferris of The 4-Hour Workweek suggests something as simple as: “Can you meet at 4:00 pm? If not, please advise three other times that work for you.” This helps reduce unnecessary back-and-forth emails to find a time that works.
Take a Sabbatical
Dedicate at least one day a week to an “email sabbatical” day. Don’t open your inbox – let your brain recharge. Even better, take a “digital sabbatical” day and turn off ALL devices. Your mind and body will thank you for it.
Check out Part 2 of the “Click Here to Unsubscribe” series in next month’s issue to learn tips, tricks, and hacks to more effectively use your email software applications.