Copying me on an email is not a get out of jail free card

"But I copied you on that email".

Email is evil. A necessary evil perhaps, but still evil.

Email is like fossil fuels: we know it causes so many problems, we know it’s bad for us and we know there must be a better way, but we can’t give it up because it’s ubiquitous and convenient. And just like fossil fuels we are starting to see tangible evidence of its negative impacts.

Studies show the average employee spends a quarter of their day in email and checks their email 36 times per hour. Less than every two minutes!

While email can be a useful tool it clearly erodes as much productivity as it creates. A large part of this productivity erosion can be attributed to the sheer volume of email we receive. We spend so much time wading through email because, quite simply, we get so much of it. Regrettably most of these emails are a complete waste of time because you should never have been copied on them in the first place.

A symptom of this increase in email volume is an unfortunate trend where employees use email to cover their butts.

How many times have you heard this? "But I copied you on that email".

While other people's view may differ on this I’d like to make my position very clear: copying someone on an email is not a get out of jail free card. Just because you copied me, and seven other people, on the email does not mean you have absolved yourself of responsibility or that I know what you need from me.

There is nothing more unproductive than group email, especially when a mountain of people have been copied. By the time you hit the third "Reply All" no one has any idea what is going on or who said what first. There is nothing I hate more than opening my Inbox to find a chain of 21 emails because I know one of two things is going to happen: I’m either not going to read them all in which case I risk missing something important, or I am going to read them all and probably waste a huge amount of time when the email chain has, unsurprisingly, very little to do with me.

The greatest email hack I've ever seen was by an EVP at a company I worked at years ago. It was a large IT services firm that had thousands of employees and the EVP would receive hundreds of emails every day, the bulk of which were CC’ed emails from internal colleagues.

He got sick of wasting dozens of hours per week shifting through emails, most of which were only sent so the sender felt their butt was covered. In response he set-up a rule in his email whereby any CC’ed email he received from an internal staff member would automatically receive a reply with words to this effect. "I have NOT read the email you copied me on. It has been automatically deleted. If the issue genuinely requires my attention come talk to me about it."

So simple, so brilliant. Needless to say the volume of email he received dropped dramatically as did the amount of time he spent in his Inbox. It was remarkable how little actually needed his attention when it required people to make the effort to speak to him directly. I guess the butt covering wasn't so important after all.

This highlights a great guiding principle for email usage: 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. This is especially true nowadays because there are so many better, more appropriate ways of communicating.

There are so many great productivity and collaboration tools on the market. Companies should embrace these tools and the productivity gains they generate. There are specific tools for collaboration, project management, task tracking and decision making. Why do so many companies attempt to use email and spreadsheets for this stuff? While email is great for certain things it is absolutely awful for others. Instead of trying to smash the square peg into the round hole, find the right tool for the job and leave email behind.

I've heard the argument that using new tools is distracting and changing the culture from email is too hard. However this is a very flawed argument. While any new system or process requires training and encouragement before it catches on, I bet the amount of effort required to achieve this culture change is a fraction of the total productivity lost compared to employees checking their email 36 times an hour.