Communication: our triumphant descent into the realms of ‘email saturation Hell’

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

Technology may never come up with a better employee communication system than the coffee break!

Do you struggle to keep on top of your inbox? Is your inbox always full of unread messages? If that is the case, you are not alone. There are lots of estimates for how much time the average employee spends on processing emails. These vary significantly depending on the research or study, so no point in discussing these here, but whatever the outcome, everyone agrees, it is a HUGE amount of time.

The cost of uncontrolled and unmanaged internal email communications is way too high for organisations, especially small ones with limited resources. Just estimate how many hours you spend processing (writing, reading and answering) emails each day, week, month, year – now quantify it in monetary terms. Also, think of the opportunity cost, all those other things you could have done instead of dealing with emails (including your personal non-work-related ones). You will agree that is a lot of time spent staring at your inbox and sadly, in most cases, a lot of it on unnecessary communications.

While we all agree email is a quick and convenient way to communicate and share information, in most cases, if not used properly, it is not the best tool for the job. Most of the time, it can become a constant distraction that prevents employees from getting meaningful work done. Thoughts immediately go to wasted time, overflowing inboxes, hundreds of unanswered messages, overtime, tiredness and stress; in this respect always watch out for potential signs your employees are suffering from chronic overwork.

Lightening your organisation’s email load will have a positive impact on the wellbeing of your employees, their levels of engagement and productivity. Research has shown that putting restrictions on email communications increases individual productivity and reduces stress. It allows employees to be in control (i.e. get real work done/time to think and innovate) rather than just managing trivial pursuits.

The idea is to set internal communication targets to reduce the amount of time organisations spend processing emails. Agree to eradicate bad email communication practices such as:

  • Using email for everything
  • Poorly designed emails
  • Writing long-winded messages with endless email trails
  • Replying to all
  • Vague subject lines, etc.

The goal is for everybody in the organisation to be aware of the drawbacks of email overload and be more respectful of colleagues’ time.

In this respect, an effective internal email communications policy that guides and helps employees understand what is expected of them is a must for employers. Likewise, training people on personal email processing techniques that will help save worktime is also strongly recommended.

You might consider using the following suggested internal email communication policies to provide guidance to your employees about what is appropriate use of email at work. Recycle these ideas to suit the needs of your organisational culture and the workplace environment that you want to create for employees at work.

Internal email communication policies

A good way to cut employee email inflow and outflow is to work at a higher level to set an internal communication protocol and policies within your organization. This section concentrates on a list of ideas for designing clear people guidelines on how to manage email communications.

Only send strictly necessary emails: The more email you send, the more you get back. Before sending an email, stop and think: is it necessary to send this email? Will it add value? If the answer is no, then don’t send it, don’t waste the recipient’s time or yours. Your co-workers will thank you for that. Use email exclusively for business purposes, use other channels for informal conversations with colleagues. Sending unnecessary work-related emails or too many personal emails, jokes, touching stories and motivational quotes quickly become tiresome, especially in a busy work environment – people will rightly think you are not busy enough or have nothing better to do. Also, if possible, avoid ‘thank you’ or ‘congratulation’ emails. These are a waste of time for everybody copied, better do it in person… just don’t forget to do so.

Concentrate on accurate, brief and clear emails: Your emails should be easy for other people to read. Trying to understand the message is the most time-consuming aspect of email communications. Be respectful to your colleagues, take a reader-centred approach where messages are direct and meet the recipient’s needs. If you absolutely need to send an attachment, explain what it is about in the main text of the message, and if it is a long attachment, point out to the recipient what sections are relevant. Avoid including long email trails. Do not expect your colleagues to read long email trails with a history of messages from various people. Delete all these and summarise the information for the recipient. Be respectful of your colleagues’ time. Note that when you send short, easy-to-read messages, people will respond in the same manner.

Change your email writing style: All internal business messages should be short and to the point. Avoid large blocks of text - clear headings, single lines and bullet points will do. Highlighting the most relevant parts of your message will also help the reader but do so sparingly. Just make sure all in the organisation agree on this style of communication. Some people may find it offensive to receive one-liners without big intros or closures - it might be worth pointing out that brevity in an email can come over as brusque or rude. Make sure that even if the email is short and to the point, it doesn’t sound curt. When you work with people with different writing styles to yours, tensions may arise unless your style and expectations are properly communicated to all co-workers.

Make sure you write for mixed audiences: Use plain English and short sentences; choose the right content and amount of detail; analyse and explain complex data; provide appropriate context; avoid abbreviations and acronyms (unless you are sure they will be easily understood by the recipient), jargon, clichés and any type of gobbledygook. This will help you avoid requests for clarification, especially if you work in a multinational organisation with colleagues in other countries.

Provide a detailed signature line: Make sure that your contact information is in the signature line of every email you send. This way, anyone who needs to contact you won’t have to email you asking for your title, mobile number/postal address or your company’s website URL.

Write a clear subject line: Your emails need a clear call-to-action subject line. This will help the reader decide if they should open your email in the first place or simply delete it instead. Giving your recipient a clue about your email will encourage them to read and reply quicker.

Only copy those individuals who need to read your message: Stop the CC/BCC madness, stop email bombing everyone, just send emails to the right people, do not assume you must copy everyone just to keep them in the loop - CC and BBC wastes a lot of people’s time. When you see a group of people have been cc’d on a message to you, if appropriate, try to reply only to the sender. Also, Bcc'ing conveys distrust and secrecy among colleagues and sometimes is considered unprincipled. For every inessential person copied on an email, you have potential to receive an unnecessary response, which is just additional work for the both of you.

Avoid email ‘ping-pong’: Just avoid big email discussions. It is important to carefully consider the best channel for the specific message that you are trying to convey. If that email in your inbox is going to take you longer than five minutes to reply, just call the sender. Sometimes it is better and easier to pick up the phone; maybe a 3-minute telephone chat can avoid 10+ email exchanges.
Don’t use emails to cover your back: Line managers may use email as a precautionary measure to check in on their reports; other workers may over-use it to show how busy they are. Sit with either your superiors or subordinates and create a new system for checking in with each other e.g. weekly summaries, organise a weekly walking meeting, or a weekly breakfast. If you can heighten trust with your team, the amount of emails will dramatically reduce.

Avoid using multiple communication channels: If email alone causes so much hell at work, imagine how much worse it would be if you have multiple online communication channels such as various email accounts, instant messaging, intranet/social intranet software, chat rooms, private and group messaging, etc. Eliminate all of them and agree with co-workers to use only email as the main internal communication channel for business purposes.

Email communications keep employees linked to the office 24/7, dramatically affecting their worklife balance. Some progressive organisations encourage employees to switch off by 6pm with no emails to be sent until the morning. This is something that could be stated in your workplace policy. This initiative is designed to give employees their personal lives back and an opportunity to recover from their work day. Remember, employee productivity can simply plummet from exhaustion due to email burnout.

Personal email processing tactics

There is nothing more stressful than not being able to get any meaningful work done during the workday because of email overload. It simply diverts your attention from what is important. Not being in control is the number one source of stress. So apart from email communication policies, here are a few suggestions on how you can better manage your inbox.

Be ruthless and selective: Do not treat every email like it deserves your attention. Do not punish yourself by wasting your time reading, and even worse answering, all the junk and nonsense emails that reach your inbox. Some emails need to be read and responded to right away. Delete the rest. Do not reply to them, delete them. Most emails are worthless, even the ones that aren’t spam. Colleagues will thank you for that.

Read emails only once: This will reduce any chances of procrastination on your side. Do not waste time re-reading emails. Never read an email and then leave it in your inbox. Don't open the same email twice: Delete, Delegate (forward), or Respond (if possible using standard replies). These are the only possible outcomes. Anything else wastes time.

Do not archive emails: A great way to waste time is to sort emails into folders. If emails can wait, they are not important, just delete them. If others can be archived, then just delete them in bulk, you will not read them again. If the content is absolutely relevant, then save it in your PC as a word document for future reference – just keep your inbox clean. However, be wary of this, some companies have a policy of keeping email archives for audit trails.

Last in, first out: Select every message that’s older than a month and delete them. If there was something important the sender would have been chasing you or you should have taken some action already. People don’t realise that too many email megabytes can cripple, slow, or even crash their hard drives.

Set email time processing targets: A powerful approach for spending less time in your inbox is to simply make a habit of tracking time spent on reading and answering emails. Determine how much time you want to spend processing emails on a given day, and make sure you don't exceed it - unless, of course, you're doing customer support via email.

Email quality time: Do not check emails 15, 20 or 30+ times a day. Stop the incessant interruptions by setting just two email processing windows a day; one early in the morning and one after lunch. Use only these times to read and reply to your messages. Only go into your inbox when you are ready to do email. Otherwise, don’t bother checking it. You would be wasting concentration time, effort, and even adding pressure and creating anxiety with information you don’t require yet.

Eliminate email in your mobile phone: When you open an email, you need to act on it. Sometimes when you do this from your mobile phone you simply cannot act on it straight away. This will save you re-checking your emails 150 times a day! Have some respect for your own personal life, avoid ‘casually’ checking your emails over the weekends or during your personal leisure time; your family will thank you for this. Use your commuting time to work as ‘thinking time’ – don’t use it for reading emails.

Defer important emails: Sometimes it’s not possible to deal with an email in less than two minutes (which is my suggested target). To defer a message simply forward it to yourself after first changing the subject to something ‘action oriented’ and meaningful to you. Once done, simply delete the original message.

Unsubscribe from useless newsletters: Stop signing up for newsletters you're never going to read. Less is more. Just unsubscribe from all of them so they don’t clutter your inbox. Don’t give your email away too easily. Remember, each time you do, you will be sent junk mail.
Filter junk mail: Filter your email to prevent repeat spam and unwanted solicitations from reaching your inbox. Only allow the important emails into your inbox.

Please keep in mind that my suggestions may not work in all organisations - use your own best judgment when you think about how to manage your internal communications. Clearly, in some job roles, you will have to check email on a regular basis, especially if your business uses email as its main communication tool with clients (e.g. customer support).

Final thoughts…

Email is a key communication channel that helps organisations with all downward, upward and horizontal communications. It is a great communication tool for multinationals, for people working in different geographic locations, in different time zones, or for employees on the move, away from the office on business trips or working from home.

There are five key reasons for email to be the preferred method of business communication:

  • Universality: Despite the vast choice of social media/non-verbal communication channels, businesses still use email as their primary means of communication.
  • Speed: Email is sent and received almost instantaneously.
  • Convenience: It eliminates the formality of a phone call.
  • Evidence: Email is a powerful tool for keeping communication records.
  • Cost: Email is one of the cheapest ways a business can use to communicate.

For these reasons, it’s clear that email is here to stay. It is a convenient communication channel that has revolutionised how businesses are run. Unfortunately, nowadays organisations are producing great quantities of email data that is fast polluting workplaces and disturbing employees’ work-life balance.

The unceasing flood of emails is one of the biggest time wasters at most workplaces and is becoming the main source of annoyance for many professionals. Think about how you can best harness the power of email to bring the best possible results for your employees and business overall.

The sooner you develop productive organisational habits regarding its use, the more time all your employees will have for what is really important to them, not only at work, but also in their private lives. Employees will thank and respect you for that!


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