Sick of email ping-pong? How to think outside the inbox

So much email is generated by petty office politics and pointless exercises in back-covering. But it doesn't have to be that way.

On current evidence, email volumes seem to be spiralling out of control. Photo: Shutterstock

Despite the proliferation of tablets and all the talk of the paperless office, it always delights me to see people with notebooks at meetings. Look around and see just how many people in your office still use a pen and notebook or some form of paper.

My response to traditional pen and paper comes partly from growing up in a family-owned stationery business. I was always blessed with the latest writing implements - from propelling pencils to exotic fountain pens - and exquisite notebooks and luxurious writing paper.

I also probably still have a soft spot for pen and paper because I'm a member of Generation X when these tools were the only way to keep notes and sketch out one's ideas in conversation. So, what has this observation to do with email management?

My research shows that 56 per cent of business people now receive more than 50 emails per day. That means they get at least one new email every nine minutes. That figure is up by at least 30 per cent over the past three years and is likely to continue to rise with the increasing costs of snailmail.

Traditional writing instruments have a special role in the fight against email overload, which on current evidence seems to be spiralling out of control.

Take two everyday work situations. Consider this typical dialogue between people in the same office and often within a five-desk radius.

Bill to Val: "Can you let me have the last sales figures for our deluxe widgets by this afternoon?"

Val to Bill: "OK, but can you send me a reminder email?"

What a waste of time and effort. The response should be a simple "yes" and Val should use a notebook to jot down her own reminder. So, why do we respond in this way rather than turn to pen and paper?

One reason for wanting a record is so that we can play cover my backside. But if the person has not done what was asked, playing email politics does not help.

The lack of delivery may be covering up a potentially deeper problem, such as lack of understanding or interest in the job. A conversation is needed not another email.

Next time someone asks you to do something, take ownership and make a note in your own daybook. Don't ask them to send you an email. It smacks of laziness, playing politics and is a total waste of everyone's time and email server space.

Consider a second common office scenario. When you receive an out-of-office message, what is your natural reaction the next time you want to email that person?

Many people choose to send another email and then wonder why the recipient misses it in the deluge of emails that await his or her return to the office. Furthermore, there's a good chance your email is redundant by the time it's read.

Here again there is an alternative and a more efficient way to handle this situation. Make a note of all the things you need to broach with the individual in question and either send them all in a single email on his or her return or have a face-to-face conversation.

Email is just one of a multitude of communications and organisational tools. Picking the right tool for the right purpose is key to saving time and improving efficiency.

For those who are serious about stopping email overload personally and within their organisation, calculate just how many emails could have been avoided if one or both parties had made their own notes instead of playing email ping-pong.

As for the writing paraphenalia, here are my current favourites. I am never without one despite having an iPad and iphone:

What's more, pen and notebook is often quicker and more reliable than all those technological gizmos, with no risk of a flat battery and no waiting for them to fire up.

Here are three ways to help people change their email habits.

  1. Best practice education Educate users - starting at the top - about email best practice and especially the effectiveness of alternative media and tools.
  2. Inbox audits Ask users to audit their inbox to identify the emails they don't need and suggest what could have been done instead. Offer a prize for the best response.
  3. Identify bad email practice Initiate a fun activity to draw people's attention to what is deemed to be bad email behaviour such as the examples cited here. Invoke a penalty, which could be a donation to a charity or imposing something painful on the losing individual such as a reduced mailbox size.

You might be surprised to see email traffic and mailbox sizes go down, bearing in mind the direct relationship between sent and received email. The more you send the more you receive.


Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management and runs the Mesmo Consultancy. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, London, and has just written her third book, Brilliant Email, published by Pearson.

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