Software investigate

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.

About

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.

23 comments
Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Never worry about having the battery charged to look something up. The added bonus is it looks rather cool and mysterious, like the sorcerer???s book from Fantasia! :) Everyone needs a grimoire...

Long shadoW
Long shadoW

- yep that's what I've be told, and they were all under 18yr's old so it must be true!! My wife works with the youth in our church [ a large group ] and has a hard time getting responses back from her emails; in a meeting to discuss a large summer event, a question was asked and an email response was suggested. All the youth looked down or away; my wife asked what the youth thought about the request, 'what would you like???? The answer was that email is dead and if you wanted to get a hold of them for answers/ideas, hit the Facebook pages. So she went home, created a page, and instead of 1 or 2 emails back in a week or so, she got 8 responses within the hour. Now this is not a business where you actually do want a more formal answer and response ( and yes butt protectin` ) but when she listened to the people she was dealing with how they wanted to communicate, she was rewarded with " communication" and promptly at that. So I agree, think outside the box, cut down on the 'send to all' and the 5th or 6th 'thanks' email and don't be afraid to give me all call, I've still got ears :0-)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Next time someone asks you to do something, take ownership and make a note in your own daybook. Dont ask them to send you an email. It smacks of laziness, ..." I leave the computer room several times a day to respond to a user's request for assistance. Most of these trips involve being stopped at least once by someone who didn't remember he needed assistance until he saw me. If I ask that person to send me an e-mail, voice mail, or smoke signal, it's to emphasis that he'll get quicker service if he proactively contacts me instead of waiting until I happen to randomly pass through his field of view. If he couldn't make the effort to contact me, I perceive that it isn't much of a problem; certainly not critical enough to abandon my original destination.

gloryro
gloryro

You need to account for short attention spans. I've found that you cannot ask more than one question or broach more than one topic per email. People read the first question, dash off a response, and move on. Follow ups are less frustrating when you parse them out than if you reply is "yeah, but what about question number two?"

dl_wraith
dl_wraith

Interesting article. On the one hand I agree that a vast amount of e-mail in my business is simply people trying to leave a (e-)paper-trail so that when things are misunderstood, forgotten or screwed up, there's a big bat to hit someone with when necessary. I hate that - middle managers wheel out ages old e-mails that may or may not have been read, filed, or remembered as proof that they demanded something be done or that staff had agreed to do something where directors and senior leaders use it as an excuse to just bark orders at people without needing to waste time on diplomacy or getting involved in time consuming discussions. E-mail - the friend of the JFDI manager On the other hand e-mail really is a massively useful reminder tool when managed correctly for busy managers, project leaders and stressed IT techs.When you've got 100's of different things clamouring for attention how do you remember it all and priorities effectively. Paper and pen can help, but it's counter-intuitive to today's generation of tech-savvy managers and smartphone-toting IT staff. I've got to sit on the fence here, I think. Not using e-mails to remind co-workers about requests I can't agree with but stopping people from sending mails just as some form of evidence or as substitutes for actual interaction I certainly can. Perhaps this is less a problem about using mail and more a problem about the culture of fear propagating throughout our businesses? If people weren't always frightened that 'x' comment or 'y' request was going to come back to bite them would they spend the effort entering e-mail ping pong in the first place?

ian.snape
ian.snape

When I get a verbal request, unless I'm in a position to action it immediately, I would ask them to email me. I am usually involved in 3-4 tasks at anyone time, have at present 4 pcs, 1 laptop, a cctv recorder, a scanner, 5 technical books open and loads of papers, keys, cables, disks etc all around my office (I admit I don't subscribe to a tidy desk policy), and so reminders need to be kept in a single organised place. And that place for me is email. If I didn't get the requester to email me, I would probably email myself.

monica
monica

Have you looked at some of the great websites dedicated to traditional writing tools like www.notebookstories.com? :)

monica
monica

The use of social networking in one form or another is meat for another column. I believe businesses could make far better use especially for sharing information/knowledge. But many don't like this as it is to open and harder to maintain the cover my backside culture. It also highlights the differences in generations. Neither is right nor wrong in their approach. Its about making best use of the available resources and being fit for purpose. Does anyone have an MBA student interested in working on this with me in the summer at Cass Business School, City University?

canewshound
canewshound

The person requesting the reply is in need of responses from these kids. The format she chose was email, which all the kids can easily use. If I were her I would not have joined Facebook to get their replies! What if she isn't familar with Facebook, or Facebook is blocked where she works? Facebook is not a method I would want to use for this purpose, and the kids should conform to the email that the leader is comfortable with. They can Facebook all they want with friends, but not the leader or teacher if that is her preferred method. Kids sound like a pack of spoiled, entitled brats. Kids, you don't always get it your way in life. Good time to learn that is now when you are young. The world is not going to revolve around you.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

mugging... That was one of the best things about implementing a helpdesk, I could always gently point them in that direction. It's good to have such a process and I don't view it as lazy so long as we are consistent in its application. Of course working in a small shop without a helpdesk (solo) I do what the author suggests and make a note to myself (sometime post-it often on ye olde non-smart phone notepad :))

monica
monica

Agree. It's one of the key points I include in my 'Briliant Email' Master Classes. It also makes it easier to handle the emails and keep track of outstanding actions.

canewshound
canewshound

I am not firing off 3 emails for 3 topics. If the recipient can't read the email and process all 3, they are lazy or brain dead. I will choose to get answers somewhere else and cut them out of the loop. If it's my employee I will expect different behavior after counseling them. People, grow up and take responsibility.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is that the responses to multiple questions may involve different people. Due to the misuse of 'Reply to All', response to one issue wind up going to everyone, including those involved only with other questions. Due to the misuse of the 'Subject' line (specifically not changing it as topics change), it becomes impossible to tell which replies are relevant to individual questions.

monica
monica

Hi Ian, Good point about having all your to do items in one place. But still feel that its down to you to take ownership. You could always email yourself a reminder. What do you do about tasks emerging from meetings? Where do you keep a note of these? An alternative to email as your tasklist is to use the TaskPad if you are an Outlook user. (You can drag and drop emails on to it to create automatically an entry). I've also read some good reviews of products like EverNote for keeping track of tasks. Just some other suggestions.

kjohnson
kjohnson

Is it possible to arrange a desk so that it looks tidy when it isn't?

dl_wraith
dl_wraith

I get what you mean but you're coming across as being quite harsh on those kids in the previous poster's example. Try and apply the same scenario in a typical office environment and you might see the value in what was done there. Take your average IT team. They may need input from various departments in order to complete a roll-out of a technical solution. The project (or maybe the business) isn't big enough to warrant a project manager but it will make a difference day-to-day regardless. The users in the company may have gotten used to IM apps to get instant feedback from one another while they're sat at their desks and rely less on e-mail as a result as it seems less efficient and a greater hassle to administer. The IT team send out an e-mail to all staff asking for the info they need to complete the project. Are we going to get the info the IT team requires promptly? Look - today's youth are used to multi-stream social communication via the Internet. Traditional methods for electronic communication (e-mail, forums or BBS, and IM) are falling out of favour while social media applications and blogging services are massively on the rise. By the time their kids are using the Internet to communicate the toolset will have changed again. The $64,000 question is: Why shouldn't we choose to use tools that the people we're communicating with are already familiar with? Surely that will solicit a greater response, regardless of the age group we're dealing with? Reverse my example and my point still stands. If the company in my example used e-mail as a primary communication tool except the IT team (who used IM or what-have-you) the IT people would get a worse response using THEIR tool of choice than if they selected the user's tool of choice. Yep, you don't always get what you want and we shouldn't pander to our kids' every whim but as IT people we should always pay attention to our users and serve their needs in the best way possible. Sometimes that really does mean doing things their way. I'm sorry if this comes across as a personal attack or a litloe harsh in esponse - it isn't. I really do understand what you mean but felt the need to expand on my thoughts re: matching the user's needs. Of course, there's another layer here that I haven't gone into regarding moving technology forward (user: "but I've always used my BBS? Why should I use social media?") but I've gone on far too long already :)

monica
monica

:)) Like it. Post-its still have a place in this high tech world. I have one on my PC with my daily 'must do' tasks!

monica
monica

Well don't be suprised if you too are left out of the loop. If you can coach people to use email more effectively that's great. But what do you do if they are external to you and the organisation?

monica
monica

Charlie, Most people don't realise just how important the subject-line is as an attention graber. I liken it to the impression you make when you walk in to a crowded room which in this case is a bulging inbox. Good subject-line is key to saving time and effective email etiquette. On your request for an email when cornered on your travels. Very good point as it presumably serves to short the wheat from the chaff and those who really need you.

monica
monica

Hi, Using lots of big black bags stashed neatly in one place maybe!!! Its always interesting when I prowl around client's offices. Those with the most disorganised desks/offices are often those who need the most help managing their inbox. Conversely those with neat desk are paranoid about filing and keeping their emails.

dl_wraith
dl_wraith

I've never had an offer to chat in person about a TR article before - thank you. I only hope that I haven't offended in any way (as that wasn't (and never is) my intention). I'm UK based (like you) and will update my profile shortly to include some contact info. You can reach me there.

monica
monica

Hi DL, How about a phone conversation to talk through some of the challenges you raise?

mdwalls
mdwalls

Admittedly different folk have different working styles. But I always wonder how much productive work was avoided by compulsive neatness?