How many emails have you received today?

Paper, computer, people, communication channelsEmails are generally held up to be the bane of business life. In fact, whilst planning this piece, I asked some fellow freelancers about the communication problems their clients faced and over-reliance on email took the top slot.

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. I think that 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.

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

1. 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?
    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.

2. 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.

3. 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 a company culture where people feel they have to put everything in writing in an email, rather than have a face to face conversation that leaves them without written proof of what was said.

Despite the bad reputation email gets, I do think there are lots of positives to it and there are many companies that use email perfectly well as part of their communication mix. With new technology such as Slack and others, you don’t even need to use email at all, if that’s what works for your organisation.

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 an email? Could you achieve your desired outcome another way, such as by talking to someone on the phone?
  • 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 develop 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 email culture. 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 – or set up yourself – clear guidelines on what email is for and how it is used in your organisation. 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

    Other articles in this series:

    Solving process problems through effective communication
    Solving motivation & productivity problems
    Reducing silo-working
    The perils of no communication
    The link between fundraising and communication

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