5 tips to improve email communication

Email is generally held up to be the bane of business life. Especially now that so many of us have spent over a year working in different locations from our colleagues.

People sitting at a table with papers, laptops and email on their screens

We’ve all heard (and many of us have experienced) the horror stories of tidal waves of emails that just keep coming.

But I have a confession to make… I don’t personally feel that email is inherently evil in itself.

I completely agree that it causes many problems in organisations, but I believe it doesn’t have to be that way. With a bit of thought and some clear expectation-setting, a lot of the issues can be removed and the beneficial side of email can be developed.

Problems with email

So, first of all, what are the problems? Here are my top 3.

Too many emails. People often complain that their in-boxes are crammed full of messages, most of which are not interesting or relevant. There are all manner of causes for this problem, such as:

  • The dreaded ‘reply all’ button. Does everyone on the list really need to see that everyone else has said ‘thanks for the info’?
  • Emails with unnecessary information. If the sandwiches are delivered to the canteen at 11.30 every morning, do you really need to email every day to say they have arrived? (Note: of course, we have been so long without lunchtime sandwiches from the caterer that the reason for this email may be to share the joy of it happening again!)
  • Laziness on the part of the sender. They can’t be bothered to think about who really needs to see the email, so they just send it to the department distribution list.

Misunderstandings. It’s very easy to get the wrong end of the stick from an email, especially if you are not familiar with a project or the tone and personality of the person sending it.

If you thought they wanted you to take action y, but really they were looking for action z, this can lead to mutual frustration and disagreement.

Covering your back and the negative feelings that inspires. It’s probably a bit chicken and egg to say which comes first – the feeling of mistrust or the act of using email to cover your back.

But however it starts, it’s not great if you have an organisational culture where people feel they have to put everything in writing in an email, rather than have a conversation that leaves them without written proof of what was said.

It ain’t what you do

It’s the way that you do it.

Despite the bad reputation email gets, I do think there are lots of positives to it. There are many organisations that use email perfectly well as part of their communication mix.

With technology such as Slack and others, you don’t even need to use email at all, if that’s what works for your organisation.

Using email well

So if you work at an organisation with a toxic email culture, what can you do?

  • Be an email role model. If you are demonstrating how to use email in a positive and useful way and getting the results you need, others will learn from you and follow suit. Be vocal (without being boring) about what you are doing and how it is making a difference. And be tactful about it too!
  • Stop and think before sending any email. Ask yourself whether you need to include everyone in the ‘to’ field. Is the topic worth covering in an email? Could you achieve your desired outcome another way, such as by talking on the phone?
  • Develop your skills. If you’re using email because you feel more confident expressing yourself in writing, but feel nervous in person to person conversations, think about how you could learn those skills. Is there any training you could take part in? Or would a coach help you to work through your nerves?
  • Talk to your colleagues about how to solve the problem. Don’t just moan to each other about how terrible it is, look for ways to proactively make things better. Even if it starts with a small number of you deciding to do things differently, that can become a bigger movement over time.
  • Ask for clear guidelines on what email is for and how it is used in your organisation. Or set them up yourself. This can show how email sits alongside other communication channels and make things clearer for everyone. Guidelines like these will be particularly useful for anyone who joins you from another organisation where things may have been done differently.

I’d love to hear how you manage the email culture at your organisation. And if it isn’t working and you would like help to develop a more positive way forward, please get in touch.

Until next time


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