‎‎Is email killing our productivity?

Guidelines for effective communications

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Like many people these days, I’m frequently inundated with e-mail messages and find going through my inbox takes up a large part of my work day. On the other hand, if I don’t check my messages regularly I will invariably miss an important deliverable or piece of information – or someone will be annoyed I didn’t respond immediately to their message.

I could literally spend my entire work week just reading, typing and responding to e-mail and dealing with the administrivia relating to those messages without ever getting any “real” work done. With all of the information, questions and requests I receive – plus meeting invitations, follow-up messages, memos and updates – it can be hard to step away from my inbox at times.

‎I also receive tons of alerts, bulletins, articles, white papers, advertising, conference invitations and press releases. While much of it is of interest to me, quite often the subject matter isn’t at all relevant to my work.

However, the biggest problem is actually with content that is relevant but doesn’t require an immediate response on my part and is more informational in nature.‎ There is just no way I can take the time to go through all those messages, even though I’d like to.

Give people a chance to respond

Sometimes it feels like a contest to see who can respond fastest to an e-mail. I’ve even seen situations where people were e-mailing each other back and forth, but because I was busy working on something else or was in a meeting someone prompted me for a response within just a few minutes. It almost felt like they thought I had nothing better to do than read and respond to e-mail.

Another pet peeve is when someone e-mails me and then follows up with a phone call within an hour. At least give people a chance to respond – especially when people are incredibly busy or have been in meetings all day.

If something is that urgent, e-mail might not be the best communication channel anyway. Wouldn’t a phone call or face-to-face conversation be better?

An effective communications tool

‎Don’t get me wrong; I’m actually a pretty heavy user of e-mail and believe very strongly in e-mail as an effective communications tool. There is simply no better way to communicate quickly, efficiently and professionally with a large number of people.

The beauty of e-mail is it is comparatively unobtrusive and generally doesn’t require an immediate response. It is also useful for providing a paper trail and a written record of what was communicated and decided to refer to later.

However, the culture and business practices in many organizations relating to e-mail leave much to be desired. Because of that, e-mail can be a huge drag on productivity.

Implications for HR

HR has an important role to play in improving communications among employees. The HR function is responsible for helping to drive cultural change and communicating norms, values and expectations around workplace etiquette. HR is also responsible for drafting and disseminating policies and guidelines relating to workplace communications and may be called upon to train and facilitate sessions regarding effective communications.

The following guidelines are designed to help organizations and individuals communicate more effectively via e-mail:

  • Consider the appropriate audience for e-mails. Include only people who need to be aware of the contents of the message.
  • Unless the message is urgent, allow people at least 24 hours to respond to e-mail before following up.
  • Flag urgent or confidential messages appropriately.
  • Consider ignoring e-mail for at least an hour or two each day to concentrate on other activities.
  • Consider using your out of office notification to let people know when you’re busy with other urgent deliverables and can’t get to your e-mail.
  • Avoid checking e-mail first thing in the morning – particularly if that’s when you’re most productive.
  • Keep messages short and to the point. Consider the use of headings and bullet points.
  • Wait at least two hours rather than replying to an e-mail in anger.
  • Assume positive intentions rather than construing an e-mail negatively.
  • Avoid including anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t want forwarded.
  • Flag non-urgent informational e-mails for later reading, skim through them quickly, delegate to others or delete them if you don’t have time to read them.
  • Consider whether a telephone call, meeting or brief conversation would be a more appropriate communications channel.

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