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Reclaim email as a business tool
by Robert Hillard

As many of us prepare to go on leave over the Christmas/New Year period we’re cleaning-up our email and perhaps grumbling about the avalanche of electronic messages!  I was reminded of a post I wrote in 2010 when I defended email as a business tool.  Two years later, and I think that email is as much a part of our lives as it was then.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do it better and I figured that it is timely to re-post my earlier comments.

Any serious business discussion about information must include email.  Like it, or loathe it, email is a major part of every knowledge worker’s life.  Unfortunately many staff have grown to hate its intrusion into their personal time, the fragmentation of their work and the expectation of a rapid reply to important messages.

The result has been that many people argue that email should be phased out and replaced by the next generation of social networking and collaboration tools within the enterprise.  To some extent, this is true with collaboration and business messaging tools continuing to gain in popularity.  However, email still remains the most popular way for most people within business to share information.

There are some things that we can do and in this post I suggest two quick actions that can change the email culture.

First, create the concept of “email bankruptcy”.  The term has been around for a while, but it is time to give it some formality.  Many staff report that exiting the company they work for, and the resultant clearing of their email, is a tremendous relief.  In effect we’ve created a reward for resignation, which is usually the exact opposite of the behaviour we want to encourage.

A potential solution is to allow staff to declare themselves “email bankrupts”.  The act of doing so will result in a declaration, through a message to all who have sent an email outstanding in their inbox, that nothing prior to the given date will be read or actioned.  The bankrupt then has a clean inbox and a fresh start.

Declaring bankruptcy should have some consequences, but they must not be too serious (name and shame would normally suffice).  In addition, like a financial bankrupt, they should be given some assistance to help them avoid the situation in the future.

Second, encourage staff (starting with yourself) to batch email sends.  Email was created based on the analogy of paper memos.  Those memos went through an internal or external mail system (“snail mail”) that caused a natural lag in the communication.  People typically looked at their incoming mail in the morning when they came to work.  If there was a backlog of mail they took it home in their briefcase to read and reply – but the sending was done the next day.

There is nothing wrong with doing work out-of-hours.  What is a problem is that the resulting messages appear in our colleague’s inboxes within moments of us sending them, creating a reminder that they should perhaps be working as well.  Worse, the near instant nature of email encourages responses that are rapid rather than considered – leading to many people working through something that in the past required just one person to do it properly.

The solution is to batch email in the same way that paper memos were in the past.  Email clients typically allow you to select a “delay” option.  For instance, in Outlook, go to the options tab and select “delay delivery”.  Set the delay to the next business day when working after hours and to a time several hours hence when responding to an email during business hours.

The result of this batching is that you still get the sense of being in control of your inbox without the depressing reality of a flood of replies coming in as fast as you deal with them.  As people get used to you working this way they will consider their reply carefully so as to maximise the value in the information that you return, knowing that they can’t create a dynamic conversation.

Email is a powerful tool and to reject it outright because of its shortcomings would be a mistake.  We must, however, all work to make it much more effective.

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