As a team coach, I'm focused on elevating the performance and results of the organizations I work with. And regardless of whether it's leadership, management, or project teams, communication is critical to their effectiveness. Unfortunately, email tends to be an area that generates a lot of problems and drama for these teams.
The problem with email is that it's easy to send a lot of information and create a lot of work for everyone else. Here are twelve rules I generally suggest teams adopt to reduce the number of emails, make them more effective tools for communications, and help people prioritize and manage their inboxes.
1. Don't email when a phone call will do.
If you can pick up the phone and have a conversation, do that. Anything that is not a simple yes/no will require some back and forth and it's better to that by phone than a long email thread. And if someone is just down the hall, a short walk is better than typing.
2. Stick to one topic or issue per email.
I generally suggest one issue or topic per email so that people can reply with just that answer or response. This way, you'll get faster responses since the person is not waiting to pull together all of the answers before they reply.
3. Only put people in the "TO" field who need to respond.
Only put the people who need to be directly addressed or need to reply in the top line. And think twice about who you put in there and if they can be excluded or just CC'd. I assume that if I'm in the "TO" I need to read and reply.
4. CC everyone else who just needs to know.
For anyone who just needs to know about the email or needs a copy of it for their records, put them in the CC field. By separating these out, you'll help people prioritize what they need to read and reply to.
5. Make reading CC emails optional.
Make reading CC emails optional or at least low priority. Create filters that put CC'd emails into a separate folder and skim once a week.
6. Don't hijack emails.
It drives me nuts when some replies to an email with an unrelated topic or issue. Even if it's related but a different thread, make an new subject line or start a fresh email.
7. If you have a lot to say, start with a summary.
If your email is going to have in-depth details, lists, and background, then start your email with a short summary that includes what actions need to be taken. Long emails will not be read right away, but a summary might.
8. Name people who you want to respond.
When you need specific people to respond with answers or decisions, make sure to call those people out by name with a clear description with what you need from them. Ideally list the call to actions on separate lines so they can reply inline.
9. Confirm receipts with reply timeframes.
If you get an email but can't reply to it right away, send a note saying you got it along with anything you can give or share at that moment as well as a timeframe for when you'll finish your reply. Don't leave emails hanging out there for more than 24 hours if you can avoid it.
10. Include documents as attachments (unless they are huge).
If you have documents, attach them rather than sending links. Many people have emails downloaded to their phones and tablets which don't have internet connections and they will be unable to see the information offline. If the documents are extremely large, consider attaching the key pages with links to the full documents.
11. Use numbered lists with more than three items.
When you're listing items or points, use numbers when it's greater than three. This allows people to refer to the points in replies or other conversations. It also helps you see how many things you're including which can help you to prioritize.
12. Set no-email hours for your team.
Emails can be very encroaching on personal lives. If people on your team have a habit of emailing at crazy hours, set up "no email" times where people agree to not send emails or cannot reply to emails. Create fun penalties for people who break the rules. Giving people time off email will prevent fatigue and burnout.
While there are many more rules you can, and should, consider, these are my top twelve recommendations that will help you and your team get your emails under control and your inbox to zero more often.