Project Management

The death of the letter - is email more productive?

Too busy? Join the club. It’s a familiar problem in today’s workplace and email is a major cause of wasted time.

When I started my career in the early 90s we had one computer for the whole office, and no notion of the Internet. In those days, if I wanted to write an urgent letter I would draft a copy by hand and ask the office secretary to type it up. I would then revise it and it would be faxed. My correspondent would doubtless be undergoing the same process at their end, so a simple exchange could take two days, or more if the weekend got in the way. Nowadays it isn’t unusual to send 10 or 15 emails, or more, to one correspondent during the same period.

The death of the letter and the connected office

As an illustrate of how new communication technologies have changed our expectations, a few years ago a client called the office at around 1pm and asked if one of our team was on holiday as she had emailed her 40 minutes ago and hadn’t had a reply. In the old, pre-email days we would have picked the phone up if the matter was pressing. That way everyone concerned instantly knew the urgency. It worked.

It may be that it’s a generational issue, as younger members of the workforce are so used to communicating via text and instant message that email seems somehow more familiar. There could even be an element of conditioning, if this is the case, as texts are a cheaper way to communicate than phone calls.

Whatever the reasons, I cannot help wonder sometimes if we are actually any better off in the age of email. I think that, as a method of communication, email can encourage laziness and procrastination, with the parties involved feeling they’ve ticked something off their ‘to do’ list simply by pressing send, and exchanges resembling a rambling conversation, full of unnecessary detail, rather than an efficient business correspondence.

However I may feel about the efficacy of email though, it is here to stay, and I doubt there are many modern businesses that can be conducted without recourse to its use. So…

If you are to tame the email beast there are some well-known rules to remember:

Use descriptive subject headings rather than ‘Hello’ or ‘PS’, and never ever ‘re: re: re:’

Ensure that any items requiring action are clearly identified and defined. Or, if no further action is required, state this clearly in the body of the email or subject line, along with ‘for reference only’.

If you are arranging a meeting offer a selection of dates and times so that the recipient can send a single email back confirming.

Don’t cc everyone you can think of who is vaguely involved. Be discerning and think of their time. My personal rule of thumb is to delete any emails I’m cc’ed into. If it was that important for me to see the content, the sender would have added me as a direct recipient.

Be realistic. Power to those business gurus who claim to not use email, or to only check it once a day. For most of us this is not practical, but you do need to set boundaries and have some email-free time in each day for concentration and focus.

Set expectations. If you receive an email and can’t reply send a canned response explaining that you will reply tomorrow, or after the weekend, or whatever works for you. Although this increases the number of emails in the conversation by one, at least it should prevent the sender chasing you, possibly repeatedly, for a reply.

If you have an urgent task to undertake and want some uninterrupted time, set an autoresponder explaining that you are in meetings and that you will be replying to emails the following day or after a stated time.

If all else fails -

This tool has made a gigantic difference to my working life. It has decreased my daily incoming email from 400+ to around 35/40, all of which are relevant and essential.

I hadn’t quite realised the volume of junk email I received in a typical day, a good deal of which I originally signed up for and never got around to unsubscribing from, or had decided might be useful one day… integrates with most email services and pre-filters your email as it comes in, filing it for you to then go through in manageable sections when you have time. It places ‘out of office’ replies in a “sanelater” folder, for example, along with emails from senders you haven’t previously contacted. It effectively summarises your inbox so that you can decide what needs to be moved to the sanelater box or to your inbox.

Once a day I review my sanelater folder, quickly deleting the Amazon special offers, restaurant newsletters, receipts and other mail I do not need to keep.

The package also includes a saneblackhole folder. Emails dragged into this folder disappear forever, along with repeat emails from the same sender.

Other features include stripping all attachments and filing them under the sender’s name in one of the many cloud based storage services such as Dropbox.

Bespoke email management systems

If your team still receives a lot of emails it could be worth developing a platform to help you manage the workload, for example with a variety of canned responses and the ability to type a few lines of customisation.

A system we built for a travel agency client decreased the amount of time required to reply to enquiries from ten or fifteen minutes per email to a minute or so. It included canned responses such as, ‘All flights are with Virgin Atlantic and include complimentary drinks and food’ while allowing the client’s team to type in a few lines of customised content to make the communication more personal.

If you have a business problem that could be solved by a software application please get in touch.

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