I read an article this morning referring to a local council in Scotland that have cited emails as a major stressor for their employees, and as part of their health and wellbeing plans they are looking to find ways to reduce the over-dependency on them.
This is a VERY common discussion I have when working with teams in larger organisations, and I totally get it! I’ve been there, receiving hundreds of emails daily, usually accessed at the end of a long day of meetings, and keeping you staying longer at the office responding to other people’s priorities and not working on your own.
Top email complaints
- Volume – it’s not uncommon for people to be receiving triple figures daily, the majority of which were likely not needed.
- Relevance – receiving emails which you feel have no relevance to you or your work.
- Inappropriate – when people try and get business done that requires real discussion and would be much more effective as a phone call or meeting.
- Unnecessary cc’s – people being copied into emails unnecessarily, often perceived as a “cover you’re a**e” tactic.
- Reply All – you’re an unnecessary cc on an email chain and everyone hits reply all, perpetuating the cycle.
- “No reply will be assumed as agreement/sign-off” – oh my, this is an emotive one and is really not how important decisions should be made.
- Chasers – being chased for not responding to an email, by another email.
- Instant response expectations – people assuming that you do nothing but stare at your screen all day waiting for emails to respond to immediately.
- Arrangements via email ping-pong – endless back and forth to try and find a suitable time for a meeting
- Thank you – now this says something about email overload when an email simply stating ‘thank you’ causes stress, usually because it’s a reply all to a lot of unnecessary cc’s who have no hope of making it through their inbox.
Emails as a key workplace stressor
When I’m running my Resilience for Leaders workshops with teams one of the things we’ll discuss is what people’s main stressors are, and without fail the subject of email comes up covering the various complaints above and more.
It undoubtedly leads to longer working hours, people never switching off as they’ll be checking their emails at all times of the morning, day and evening, people never being fully present at what they should be doing because they’re taking a sneaky look at their inbox, and simply people never fully applying themselves to their core priorities because there’s a load of emails requiring review and response.
And that’s before we even get to the mis-communication that frequently happens over email, the offence that’s unintentionally caused, and the wasted time that then goes in to working out what that email really means, getting a colleague to have a look, and then spending time creating a response. When a phone call could have had it nailed in less than 5 minutes.
Mis-use of email
As with many areas of technology, email can be an amazing and very effective tool – if used well and correctly. Recently I wrote about ‘How to Use Technology Intentionally Reduce Stress’ and the whole subject of emails was covered there too. Unfortunately the over-use and over-dependency is a vicious cycle of ever increasing email traffic until you have a meaningful talk about how it should and shouldn’t be used within your business. An email use and etiquette discussion can go a long way.
And before you even go there, email free Friday’s don’t work, nor does automatically deleting everything you’re cc’d into, or not responding at all with the thought that “if it’s important they’ll try again”. They might be short term coping techniques but none are addressing the cause of the problem and in themselves simply cause other issues.
What’s driving email overuse?
You’ll all have your own insights on this and I’d love to hear about them, but here are a few that come to mind for me:
- We have too many priorities and by juggling far too many things simultaneously we’re never available to talk and resort to a late night email.
- We have too many meetings and are constantly unavailable (and there’s another blog!).
- We’re losing the art of talking to each other, working through challenges in person, and handling conflict.
- Too many fingers in too many pies, with everyone wanting to know everything, and often there being a lack of clarity re ownership and accountability.
How to change your email culture
I use the word culture deliberately – email use and etiquette is absolutely part of your company culture and as such will take a while to understand and change. The key is always to understand, communicate, act and persist with consistency. Some starting points could include:
- Talk about it – understand what your email culture is by having good conversation, understands what stresses people, and what could work instead.
- If you’re doing something different yourself or in a team, then tell others what you’re doing and why. Telling others is REALLY important, otherwise you’ll simply cause a whole load of other issues.
- Be very intentional and clear when sending an email – who it’s going to, what the purpose is, and what you are expecting of people to do as a result of it.
- Use the email header well – providing clarity here about the subject, urgency and requirement can be a really easy way to help others prioritise.
- Never expect an instant response – if that’s what you need then pick up the phone, email is not the right channel.
- If you’re sending emails out of business hours, think twice before pressing send and consider those on the receiving end.
- When it comes to your own inbox, only access at planned points during the day when you are going to have an intentional focus on reviewing and responding. At other times close your inbox down and turn off notifications to allow you to focus on your priorities.
This last one has likely made you shudder – what, don’t look at my email for several hours?! Yes, that’s the suggestion, otherwise you’re just never going to get anything done. Some of the most productive and successful people I know work this way – they are working to their own agenda and priorities, not someone else’s. It’s impressive and effective. (Just don’t forget to tell others that’s what you’re doing and how to contact you with something urgent).
Ultimately, this is what it comes down to – which form of communication will best enable you to achieve your goals AND demonstrates respect for those who are helping you to achieve that outcome?
If in doubt leave out, and opt for a good conversation.
How I can help your team
A team’s well ingrained working practices can often be an emotive topic, the reality being that we’re all guilty of something that doesn’t work for someone else. When working practices, such as email, become a workplace stressor it’s time to do something about it and an objective third party who’s keen on partnering with you for results can really help.
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