Recently I have had a series of conversations with managers in colleges about the challenges of using email effectively as a communication tool. In each setting, the very mention of the word email provoked rolling of eyes and gestures of exasperation. People mentioned:
- The saturation issue – so many emails flying around each day that it is too easy to lag behind and miss key information. The scourge of “reply all” was highlighted here.
- Increasing use of out of work hours communication on non-urgent topics, leading to people feeling pressured to respond and to monitor email in their personal time.
- Some managers seeming to expect their line reports to be available and responsive to email at all times, even when they are actually doing their job with people in the real world, off email.
- Managers finding that their emails can entirely dominate their working day and they can end up a slave to email in an attempt to “keep on top of things.”
This all sounds quite troubling as it implies habits and behaviours that could be problematic for communication and unhealthy for the much-discussed work life balance. It seems that this may be a topic worth discussing in a college setting, to reflect on habits and approaches in order to create better, healthier ways of working together.
In my sessions with managers we came up with these ideas of how to tame the beast that is email and I hope they will be of interest and use to others struggling with this thorny problem.
- Devise your own strategy for keeping email in its rightful place. This means finding a way of organising your time so that you can check email regularly but not live on it so that it becomes almost a substitute for getting other work tasks done. Managers told me that they check email first thing, set up a slot midday for another catch up and have an end of the day session so they can go home feeling reasonably on top of things. They mentioned the importance of spending time out of their offices, off email, communicating with people face-to-face. This can save on emails, help you check communication that may have started via email and simply assist you with useful, meaty management activities based on relationship building, monitoring and connecting with the team, of course.
Many managers I have met recently are aware that person-management activities- dropping in on work rooms, meeting staff 1:1, visiting classes, following up on development plans- get eroded by an over-zealous focus on reading emails. It seems that managers want to redress that balance in some settings; get the focus back onto management activity as opposed to having email communication dominate their day. This could help people to feel more ownership in their role, enable them to lead and develop their teams more thoughtfully, being better connected and in touch with them. I am meeting too many managers who feel disempowered and almost paralysed in their team leadership role and I think that the way communication works via email is a contributory factor within that.
- Make email work for you by harnessing its features – use the rules in settings to set up allocation of certain emails to specific folders. People clearly have an array of these folders, for example:
Research or investigation
The critical thing is to set up a group of personal folders that will help you keep track of relevant and useful information and be able to retrieve it easily. It should also help direct your attention to what needs action and what is just for archive, and therefore speed up that process of paying attention to the significant stuff. It also means that you don’t face a demoralising inbox of 2,345 unread emails each time you log on.
Email systems can also send reminders and prompts to you and others so that is worth harnessing, even if training is needed to do it effectively. This can help take the pressure off short-term memory in the blizzard of tasks people are grappling with each day.
- Start the debate in your institution about how email is used and how to use it more effectively. Here are some prompt questions to start that conversation:
- How can we balance the use of email with the other aspects of management communication?
- How can we avoid/minimise sending emails in personal time/out of work hours? What kind of situations merit sending emails in those times? What is a reasonable expectation of response time?
- When is “reply all” really appropriate?
- How does our email style affect others? This is an interesting topic for a management 1:1 conversation, if there is openness to hearing and responding to that feedback. Some managers have told me that their leaders rarely email to praise or pass on positive feedback. It is a channel for demands, transfer of information and often criticism. This seems like a lost opportunity to me and could easily lead to a very negative feeling about even switching on the machine in the morning!
- When is it better to talk than send an email? How can we make management more ‘human’ again?
- What else could we be doing if we spent less time on email?
Hopefully this blog is helpful food for thought and may spark a few constructive conversations about this tricky topic. Why not try and make 2017 the year that you tame the beast that is email?