E-mail is an essential business tool. The average office worker spends 49 minutes managing e-mail daily, while upper level managers spend up to four hours a day on email, according to Nancy Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute and author of Writing Effective E-mail and E-mail Rules.  "All that sending and receiving, responding and deleting takes an enormous toll on workplace productivity," she says. Making better use of e-mail includes communicating more effectively, as well as knowing when to use e-mail, and when another form of communication would be more effective.

E-mail picks up the pace of communications between co-workers and customers: it arrives almost instantly, compared to the slower pace of traditional mail or even special delivery services such as overnight and same-day couriers. It allows workers to be more productive, as it reduces the time spent in face-to-face meetings or even in telephone calls.  Workers tend to spend less time composing e-mail than on formal letters, yet the content of e-mail communication is just as important.

Before encouraging your company's workers to write e-mail, make sure you let them know the company’s policies. Seventy-six percent of companies have a written e-mail policy, Flynn says. Even if a company doesn’t have an e-mail policy, it most likely has other policies regarding communications -- including sexual harassment and discrimination policies. Make sure employees know the rules and adhere to them. Inappropriate e-mails are common. Half of employees have reported receiving inappropriate e-mail at work, Flynn says. Such e-mail is a liability. When a company has to defend itself in court against sexual harassment claims, the stakes are high -- it can be a drain on finances and other resources. Upfront education can prevent e-mail from coming back to haunt your business, reducing or eliminating time-consuming and expensive subpoenas and searches through backup tapes.

Tips for better e-mail communication

Although e-mail appears less formal than a hand-printed letter, it’s important to follow standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. “All business correspondence -- electronic or hard copy -- projects an image of you and your organization,” Flynn says. “In the battle for the reader’s on-screen attention, carefully written, thoughtfully worded e-mail free from inappropriate language and mechanical errors is sure to come out on top.”

The most effective tone for business correspondence is professional, yet conversational, Flynn says. Avoid jokes, clichés, and abbreviations. Only use abbreviations if you know your readers will understand them. “Emoticons” --  smiles, winks, or other symbols used to convey tone  -- should be used sparingly in e-mail, and not at all in business communications.

Be brief and make your message easy to read. “Try to write nice, short sentences,” Flynn suggests. Lead with the most important information, in case the reader doesn’t finish the message. And make the subject line compelling.

Some types of e-mail messages are common, and tend to be rewritten and sent frequently. To save time and be more productive, create templates of common e-mail responses that can be personalized. For example, queries about the company’s products, coming in from many different potential customers, can be answered quickly by using a pre-written template. Personalize the response with the customer’s name and any other unique information as needed.

To e-mail or not to e-mail

Besides saving time, e-mail saves the cost of sending regular mail, faxes, or long-distance phone calls. It is useful for communicating with people in other time zones, enabling you to avoid phone calls in the middle of the night. The writer and receiver of the message can conduct business during normal working hours, Flynn says.

Another benefit of e-mail is that it can be used to get past gatekeepers and communicate directly with decision makers, such as if your company is seeking venture capital financing and you can't get through on the phone to a partner. “As long as you have the decision-maker’s correct e-mail address, there is a good chance your message will be read by your intended reader,” Flynn says.

However, not all business communications call for e-mail.  Sending e-mail saves time, but there’s no guarantee the recipient will read it in a timely manner. Also, don’t use e-mail for confidential messages. “If you’d be embarrassed if the message is read and the information compromised, you don’t want to send it via e-mail,” Flynn says.  And when conducting negotiations or any type of conversation that calls for back and forth discussion, consider doing it on the phone or in person.