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Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: email is not fit for purpose. At least not in the way we are using it most of the time. Aside from the fact that studies show it is detrimental to our mental health, it is also, quite possibly, the single-worst form of communication we have ever had– again, at least in how we are using it much of the time.
Let’s start with the obvious: the instantaneous nature of email and the ease with which we can send them lends many to the mistaken belief that an email should be replied to rather speedily. For example, how often does it happen that you receive an email, and then within a relatively short time period another comes along from the same person asking if you got the first one?
It’s an impossible pace, really. Depending on your industry or your job role, the frequency with which you get emails can simply become unrealistic from a workflow management point of view. Yet many of us feel a very real pressure to respond to most of these emails –often rather quickly– simply to get that “task” off our desk.
Another problem is that many of those emails are in fact actual to-dos. So from your boss, from your client, from your colleague, etc., you may receive within the span of 30 minutes several different emails all containing different tasks. Now while you of course can respond and let people know when you will deliver what, just think about how much distraction the response time alone is, and how stressful the effort to stay organized in general has become.
And then there is my favorite (I hope you are picking up on the sarcasm), and this has to do with the sheer amount of time we spend on emails. To be specific, studies show that over the average five-day working week, about a day-and-a-half is spent meddling with our inbox. That’s almost a third of every working week. And the time alone on those emails is not the only problem. Also an issue is the time it takes us to get our heads back into the task we were doing prior to getting caught up in our emails. Studies estimate that it can take up to 23 minutes to fully get back into a given activity following a distraction or temporary change of task.
The Wall Street Journal found that an estimated 80% of all work email efforts amount to a waste of time. That is to say, 80% of the time spent directly or indirectly on emails is time wasted trying to deal with issues that are better served with a different method of communication or a different way of working– one that simply does not involve email.
As unproductive and maddening as it too often is, email is going to be around for a long while yet. And while I don’t think there is much we can do to truly improve the situation, I do think we should make an attempt to touch up on our email etiquette– if even just a little bit. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways we can all make email a little less painful for one another.
1. Choose your recipients wisely.
Before adding the whole department as email recipients, or clicking “Reply All” to someone else who did just that, consider whether or not all those people need to be included. Take the time to think about who actually needs to see your message, and don’t bother the rest.
2. Know when to pick up the phone.
Please do this more often. The topic you are covering is likely open to interpretation and has many complex nuances that need to be explained in detail, so a phone call is just about always going to be the better solution. Before becoming a “task in someone’s inbox,” think about how much better things would be if you could wrap it up in a friendly phone chat instead. This is also an essential one when it comes to time sensitive or important issues, like the cancellation of a meeting. In fact, meeting cancellations are a great example of something that should never take place via email. I would go so far as to say that is in fact quite rude.
3. Find the right balance.
There are two types of email that people hate the most: the “one-worder” and the “War and Peace.” Hurriedly replying yes to an email might feel like an accomplishment, as you have got across your point in the most concise way possible, but in reality, it’s once again a very rude way of handling things, and it also has the potential to be misunderstood (hey, did you really read the message before spending all of three seconds to reply?). At the other end of the scale, a recent survey by email marketing expert Sidekick found that 39% of us consider long-winded emails to be our number one pet peeve. If you have that much information to share, organize a call or a meeting.
4. Stay on message.
In that same Sidekick survey, 15% of respondents said the number one thing they dislike most about emails is when there is no clear purpose, whether because things have been jumbled together or there is an attempt to address too many issues at once. Try to stick to one subject per mail, and please, please do not use email as a means to list the 30 tasks you want you teams or co-workers to support with, all of which add up to several days or even weeks of work.
5. Don’t overstate your importance.
We all want our emails replied to, but be honest with yourself– just how urgent is the matter? Tagging an email as high priority or starting your subject line with “URGENT” in those lovely, screaming capital letters, is fine when absolutely necessary (which is just about never). Please do not overuse these terms because the boy who cries wolf is eventually entirely ignored. And besides, real urgency is what face-to-face comms (or a telephone call) is for.
6. Switch off receipts.
This one should be illegal, seriously. I still see people using this and it blows my mind. You know what I am talking about here: that feature that asks you to let the email sender know you have seen and acknowledged his or her email. Ok, fair enough, we see it very rarely, but that’s still way too often, so worth a mention here. If you really want to know if your email was well received because it is just that important, again, pick up the phone.
7. Make your subject clear.
Our inboxes are now being clogged with tens if not hundreds of emails a day, which can be incredibly time consuming– not to mention distracting. To combat this, a reported 33% of us decide whether to open an email simply based on the subject line, so it’s vital that you summarize the point of your communication and outline the reason for your message upfront. Not only does this help your recipient to prioritize their mailbox at a glance, but it will likely help you get a faster response as well.
8. Don’t rush to click send.
Get into the habit of re-reading your emails at least once carefully before hitting the send button. Aside from the obvious bonus of helping you catch any typos and ensuring you have included any necessary attachments, proofing your message will help you ensure that you are clearly conveying your thoughts– and that you have used the right tone. I cannot tell you how many times I have sent an email in the past, then reread it and said, “Wait, that came out way differently than I intended.” In a worst-case scenario you in fact run the risk of offending, and according to a recent survey, 15% of office workers have admitted to having confrontations with colleagues due to a misunderstanding over email.
Will we see the end of email?
I hope so. I believe that email is just a temporary solution (err, make that a 30-year+ stopgap). Sure it has absolutely changed the way we communicate both in our business and private lives, but in the hyper-connected world we now inhabit, it’s simply not up to the task– again, at least not as it exists in its present form.
And there are plenty of examples of companies who have had enough, and here is my favorite: when Thierry Breton, CEO of the French IT company Atos, found after an internal study that only 10% of the emails his 76,000 employees send and receive each day were useful, he made the decision to ban email completely for internal communications, replacing it with instant messaging instead. Four years later and the company is still internal email free, and reports to have reclaimed 25% of work time that was lost to email, with customer satisfaction up 30%, and work efficiency also up 30%.
If ditching email completely seems like a step too far, there are many other options available. Solutions such as Slack bring together all channels of communication –including email, IM, social media and file sharing– prioritizing them and alerting you when a message requires your attention.
Such solutions are a clear first step in the direction that will eventually take us away from email as we currently use it. It is inevitable now, as we are at the boiling point. Useless issues are being tossed around by email, cluttering our inbox and distracting us to the point of tremendous frustration, and that in turn is leading to very important issues (which should anyway not be dealt with through email) simply getting ignored.
In many ways email has added immense value in the decades that it has been around, but for far too many of us, it is now causing more harm than good.