Don’t kill email, send killer email

There has been a lot of conversation recently about large companies implementing “zero email” policies.  At first blush, this sounds great!  No more emails about the bathroom on the third floor in the Australian office being closed on Saturday (I work in the US)? No more global emails that the QRC group is having a team outing (does anybody even know what QRC stands for or what they do)?  No more 100-deep email threads asking to ‘unsubscribe’ from a mailing list?  Perfect!

But despite the problems with email, I think this will be a difficult policy to enforce and one that would really hurt productivity and communication in most companies. Email is still very useful in a number of ways: communicating with other companies, searching for email, sharing documents, calendar invitations and scheduling, and sending important must-read emails to a wide audience (benefits enrollment deadline, for example).  Also, the reality is most of us work in a global economy with customers and employees all over the world; email is a great tool to deal with time zone differences.

However, I agree that certain problems with workplace emails do exist.  Employees clearly get too many emails that simply don’t matter (in addition to spam).  Expecting an immediate response after hours and on weekends is very common.  And there now exists better forms of communication (internal Facebook-like systems such as Chatter).

Even after two decades of email existing in the workforce, most employees still do not follow basic email etiquette.  Here are 10 tips for reducing email volume at your company:

1. Use the phone or walk over to their desk.

Joe just sent you and 10 of your co-workers a flaming email that is simply dead wrong and makes you look bad.  You immediately hit Reply-All and start tearing Joe to shreds, showing him and everyone else who is smarter! Do NOT hit ‘Send’!

Take a deep breath and pick up the phone or walk over to their desk.  Email is rarely the appropriate tool to resolve a debate.  Try calling first; you will usually get an answer faster if you try their mobile.  If they don’t answer, leave a voicemail asking for a call back, and if you don’t hear back, follow up with an email requesting a phone call.

Usually what happens next is you and Joe discuss and you can then ‘Reply-All’ stating “I followed up with Joe on this and we agreed that…”.  This will usually save lots of emails going back and forth and an ugly public flame-war.

2. Don’t feel obligated to weigh in with your 2 cents.

When you receive an email with a large cc audience, not everyone needs to respond.  Many times I see “+1” emails (emails basically stating “I agree” and nothing else) that really add no value.  Have something substantive to add to the conversation before replying.

3. Don’t respond immediately, it will be OK.

How many times have you gone on vacation and “unplugged” from email for a few days?  When I do this, I come back to hundreds of emails I can simply delete because the issue was resolved without needing my input.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this too.  Think how much time you can save if you simply let issues play out before jumping into the conversation.  Of course, you don’t want to withhold valuable information intentionally, but if you limit your emailing to 2-3 times per day you will be amazed how many “issues” don’t need your help (see tip #10).

4. Send to the appropriate mailing lists.

Remember your audience.  Emailing the entire company about things that only matter to a subset of employees is really bad form.  A good example is emailing all global employees on a subject that matters only to employees in one location.

Many a flame-war has started because someone thought it would be ok to email the “linux-users” list asking for help with how to create a macro in Excel.

5. Rarely use the Bcc field.

Bcc should only be used to hide all recipients to prevent reply-all (informational emails).  Another good use is to remove people from a thread that should not of been added (be sure to state in the email “Moving Joe Smith to Bcc ” so that he’s not added-back).  Outside of those two use cases, Bcc should be avoided.

6. Try alternative tools.

Social tools are popping up everywhere to help with internal communication.  Good examples are Chatter and Yammer.  This provides employees a great place to discuss topics and share information without filling up everyone’s Inbox.

7. Don’t Cc your manager or your colleague’s manager.

Usually this is done to keep managers in the loop or show that “work is being done.”  But often managers will feel obligated to respond and weigh in with their opinions.  Whenever you catch yourself adding people “up the chain”, ask yourself ‘why’?  Usually they are not needed and it will only change the tone and could change the conversation completely.  Do your manager a favor and help keep their Inbox volume low by handling issues without their help.

8. Realize everything you write will get forwarded to everyone in the company.

Think your email will only go to those you initially put in the ‘To’ or ‘Cc’ line?  Think again.  Emails are forwarded all around and people are more often added to threads than removed.  If you are sending emails that you don’t want others to see, don’t send them.   Adding ‘please don’t forward’ will only help marginally.  Also keep in mind that everything you write will be searchable and discoverable forever.

9. Provide an easy way to update email lists.

Give employees an easy way to subscribe and unsubscribe from lists.  I’m always amazed at how many employees simply let all email flow into their Inbox.  Employees change departments, roles, and locations frequently, but it usually takes a long time to get removed from lists that no longer apply to their job.  If it requires an IT ticket to get removed from a list, you are doing it wrong.  Give employees as many tools as possible that help control their email volume.

10.  Block off two 1-hour email sessions per day.

Do you spend more than 2 hours emailing each day?  Is Outlook always open and that pesky desktop notification of new mail a constant distraction?  Do you email during meetings?  Are you responding from your mobile to non-urgent emails?  These are all signs you are spending too much time on email.

I suggest blocking out two 1-hour email sessions per day.  Usually when you first arrive at work and again before you leave.  At work, concentrate on actual work, don’t multi-task.  Go talk to your employees, listen and participate in meetings, spend more time in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint than you do Outlook.

And for you developers out there, close Outlook completely!  (Use your mobile for calendar reminders.)

Of course, nobody is perfect and I’ve violated many of these tips myself even recently.  But how your company uses email will help define your culture so working on it is important.

OK, time for me to email this globally and catch up on all the email that has been sent this weekend. 🙂


This post was originally posted on Kevin’s blog here. Kevin is the VP of Product Management at Rackspace.

This is a guest post and the opinions of the author may not reflect those of Rackspace.

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  1. If a company implements a zero email policy you have a lot more to be worried about then not getting emails. This is a lazy way of saying we can’t give you the tools you need to get your job done. Anyone who knows business knows “information is power.” So what they really need to do is enable filtering and sorting capabilities that allow you to get all this information and organize it.

    At least this is my opinion.


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