The Email Jungle and what to do about it

We all have different communication styles. Some of us even “think out loud” in the office. We are also, at times, guilty of inefficient use of email – basically, we waste each other’s time by needlessly emailing each other. How so?

The main culprit is the “cc” field. Our instinct is to “cc” our colleagues/ subordinates/ managers, for a multitude of reasons: keeping them informed, showing that we are working hard, insuring against later reproaches and avoiding having to talk to them. We also believe emailing helps to make things happen. We try overcoming the cold reality of black and white letters on a screen by adding emoji (though this is less common in the workplace). We reach lots of colleagues, but does addressing more people actually get more done? I do not necessarily think so.

The writer Phil Cooke looked at this and identified four reasons supporting this theory:

1) It creates duplication, because no one is sure who’s responsible. So you get a lot of wasted effort when multiple people assume they’re supposed to follow up.

2) It creates confusion, because without further explanation, people are usually not sure why they were cc’d in the first place.

3) People bump into each other and turf wars happen because the lines of responsibility are not clearly drawn.

4) Nothing happens because you weren’t specific. When you include everyone, people will naturally assume someone else will take care of it, and therefore nobody does.

So… what to do instead?

It seems simple. Write only to the people directly responsible for what you want to happen – and set yourself up so that others can stay informed in other ways, on a need-to-know basis. This could be a weekly update, report or short all-hand meeting. Consider implementing Scrum – or elements of it (if you have never heard of Scrum: “Scrum is a framework for project management that emphasizes teamwork, accountability and iterative progress toward a well-defined goal.”

There are also software packages such as VoloMetrix that draws data from employees’ email headers and calendars to monitor groups’ interactions. It then creates anonymous reports, and individuals can see confidential weekly dashboards that inform them on the amount of time they spend on email or in meetings on a weekly basis – all in the interest of transparency. Says Chantrelle Nielsen, head of customer solutions at VoloMetrix: “a small handful of people are really off the charts and consume more than 400 hours a week of colleagues’ time – the equivalent of 10 people working full-time every week.” The upshot? Think twice even about sending short “reply all” answers – “OK” or “thanks” – they, too, take time to delete.

Are you part of the problem? Ask yourself…

• Do you often use email to sort out disagreements?

• Do you often invite colleagues to meetings just to make them feel included?

• Do you see receiving and sending email as a sign of importance?

• Do you usually hit “reply all” when receiving group emails?

• Do you always respond to emails even if only to acknowledge receipt?

• Do you send open-ended emails just to update colleagues about projects, just in case they want to weigh in?

• Do you see being invited to a lot of meetings as a sign of a person’s importance?

Source: Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal

Of course, there is the other side of the coin also – we do not want to turn into monosyllabic automatons that do not seem to care. Sometimes, a friendly “thanks” is in order and even important, and a silly joke on a Friday can do wonders to lift the office mood and help build culture.

by rosa@vwa.com