There has been a lot of “email hate” recently. I’ve seen heaps of articles and commentary about how email makes companies unproductive and wastes employee time, and how distracting email can be. I’ll sheepishly admit that in the past I too jumped on the email-is-evil bandwagon.
However I’m starting to have a change of heart on this, and now I don’t think email gets the positive accolades it deserves.
Ashton Kutcher recently asked his army of Twitter follows “If you could only use one app for the next 2 weeks what would it be?” He got lots of various responses but not one single person said email. Really? You could live with only Uber, or Instagram or pinterest for two weeks but not email. Sorry I don’t believe you.
In the internet world people can’t live without their email. Period.
The fact that no one mentioned email actually highlights the success of email. Email is now so ubiquitous that we don’t even think of it being in an app anymore. It’s become a fundamental part of our lives. You don’t think about using it, you just do, which is why people didn’t consider it when asked the question above.
Email is the most successful IT system ever built. It’s everywhere, everyday. People applaud Facebook for being the first platform to have a billion users. Yet no one mentions that every one of those users has an email address, maybe even two or three addresses. A recent report by The Radicati Group estimates there will be 4.9 billion active email accounts by the end of 2017. Given the Earth’s population is expected to be 7.4 billion, that is pretty staggering penetration.
Yet despite this remarkable market penetration every few years a new batch of tools comes along claiming to be the death of email. First it was wikis, then yammer and Jive had a turn and recently it’s Slack and Asana. Yet none of these have made a dent in email usage. If anything email usage has increased despite all of these competing systems.
And our obsession with email doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In the past 12-months alone billions of dollars has been invested into email management and marketing tools including common names like MailChimp, RelateIQ, ExactTarget and Salesforce Marketing Cloud (a.k.a Marketo). So despite the Silicon Valley hype about the death of email it would appear that Silicon Valley doesn’t actually believe email is dying any time soon.
Not only is email used by everyone, it seems to be used for everything. It’s a communication and collaboration tool for both one-on-one and groups, it’s a to-do list, a file repository and transmission service, it’s a marketing tool and notice board. And in email’s defense it was never intended for half of these uses.
Which brings us to why there is so much email hate; we’re not using email the right way. It’s our fault, not email’s fault.
Email is like a Labrador puppy: if you train it properly it will be your best, loyalest friend but if you don’t train it properly it will dig up your garden and eat your slippers. If you train yourself and your team to use email appropriately it’s an amazingly efficient tool. We talk about email being unproductive yet I’d hate to see how unproductive things would be without it… want to revert back to faxing your clients and paging your employees?
The fact is email works. The problem for email is that it works too well. It’s slotted into our modern lives so seamlessly that now we take it for granted. It’s like that great Louis CK bit about how everything is amazing but we’re so ungrateful about it [link below].
However email clearly isn’t perfect. While the problems with email might be created by our own behavior this doesn’t mean the problems aren’t real. The biggest problem most people have with email is the sheer volume of email they receive. In a commercial setting most employees receive dozens of emails a day. Interestingly this number seems to increase in proportion to the size of your company. It is not uncommon for senior executives working in multi-national firms to receive literally hundreds of emails a day.
Wading through this mass of email is not only time consuming but worse, time wasting because so many of the emails you receive you really shouldn’t have received.
So how do we deal with this problem? How do we reduce the volume of email in order to make email more productive? The answer is incredibly simple: less is SO much more. Email would be considered less of a burden if there was less of it. Less noise, less distraction, less time consumption.
And all that is required is a little email etiquette between you and your colleagues.
Here are the top six best practices for reducing your email volume;
1. Reduce the number of people copied on the email.
Email makes it so easy to copy lots of people but that doesn’t mean you should. Before sending the email challenge yourself to think “do I really need to copy this person?”
Use this simple thought as a guiding principle: if you wouldn’t get out of your chair and walk across the office to tell someone about it then you probably shouldn’t email them about it.
Not only does copying someone on an email take up their time, but worse, it takes up yours because that person may feel compelled to response to your email. Even if their response is “Thanks” or “OK” that email still hits your inbox and you still need to clear it.
The less email you put out, the less you’ll get back.
2. Avoid “Reply All” unless absolutely necessary.
In spy movies they always have to flip a protective cover off before they can hit the nuclear launch button. Reply All should have the same safety mechanism… “Do you really need to copy everyone on your reply?”
Unless your response genuinely needs to be read by everyone don’t fill their inbox. This is bad email etiquette.
3. Make your purpose known up-front
Make the intention of the email very clear from the start. It’s good practice to indicate the purpose or objective of the email in the subject line. Such as “For information only” or “No reply necessary”.
Again, you get back what you put out so make your intentions for the email clear. Many emails don’t need a reply, or only need a reply from certain individuals. State whether you need response or not.
4. Avoid using pre-built group email.
Pre-built group or team emails (such as “Sales Team” or “Marketing Team”) are an easy way to notify a defined group of colleagues. However it’s too easy to over use these groups. Unless everyone in the group really needs to receive the email then don’t use the group. This is bad email etiquette and just laziness on the sender’s part.
Also, in the majority of cases these group emails will be for one-way notification or information only. Rarely will you really need input from the entire sales team on an issue.
5. Don’t be afraid to start a second email thread.
Often an email thread will get to the point where most of the input is coming from two or three people yet everyone else is still copied on it. Don’t be afraid to end the first email chain and continue the discussion in a new email chain with just the people who need to be involved. Otherwise you are filling your colleague's inbox unnecessarily.
You can always send an email to the group when the issue is resolved informing them of the outcome. I guarantee your colleagues would rather get one email with the final result than being copied on 20 they didn’t need to read.
6. Delete old emails
Let’s face facts, the search and retrieval mechanism on all email systems sucks. Trying to find an email from 6-months ago is incredibly painful and time consuming. Trawling through old email wastes valuable time so you should do whatever you can to make this more efficient. Permanently deleting low-value emails reduces the volume of email you need to search through later. Any email that you don’t need to keep, like marketing promotions or when someone replies “Ok” should be deleted to save you time later.
The beauty of these practices is their simplicity. There is nothing complex here, just a bit of effort.One thing I would thoroughly recommend is for companies to make email etiquette part of their induction process that way it breeds within the culture. If you train yourself and your colleagues to obey these simple guidelines the volume of your inbox will drop substantially. But it does take training. Think of the Labrador puppy. It needs consistent reinforcement but the end result is worth the effort.