The Pain of Email Hygiene

Most people suffer from the daily load of emails. I have met people who claim that it is not a big issue, but they also tell me that it’s just because the amount of emails they receive is fairly low.

We can all feel the pain that emails create. And most know that the using email is often inappropriate. But how do we know when to email and when to go for a better alternative? That’s unsolved for most people.

Most of the time we don’t even know what the appropriate action is. And often we fail to act professionally, although we know better.

5 situations when we abuse email even though we know better

  1. Attaching a document to an email – It is not okay ot attach a file to an email that only reaches co-workers. Before you know it, this mail is forwarded to someone else and another colleague has changed the file and distributes a new version of it to all. You know this hell, don’t you?
  2. Asking soneone else to do something for you – If you have a task that others can do, you want to put it in your central task management system. Then you may nudge your co-worker via email. I do admit, that a lot of teams do not use a task management system like JIRA. But if you’re in one of those teams, this is something to work on. There is no escape from email hell without such a system.
  3. Starting or enganging in an email discussion – Isn’t it easy to just reply to that question that Karl sent to the whole team asking if the standup could generally be shifted from 10am to 11am? No, because you want discussions to happen in real time in HipChat and result in a Confluence page with a decision or a JIRA task. Discussing stuff via email is an insult to your companies productivity.
  4. Not answering email you would normally want to answer – There are those people who ignore emails. Some ignore some mails, some ignore all, some think it’s fine to let a mail fall through the cracks. We all know it’s impolite and with some customers even costly not to work diligently and reliably on emails. You can actively decide not to react to a mail. But accepting a situation where an email can explode without your knowledge is dangerous at best.
  5. Trying to arrange a meeting or a call via email – There are a lot of good alternatives out there. Shared calendars, Doodle and so on. Email flood is definitely not caused by date-finding activities. But this is just one of many examples of what can be done better with special apps than with email.

4 situations when you should be allowed to break all rules

  1. When you are on the go – Whenever you only have your smartphone – it’s better for your coworkers to get a quick reply or info from you, than have you do nothing because you cannot stick to good mail practice. Forget it. Simply be helpful.
  2. When you are in a hurry – Sometimes you have to leave for an appointment or meeting. Or you are in the middle of two scheduled slots. Whenever you are in a hurry, it is okay to put the burden on others. But please ask them to store the file, to create the task or to move the discussion.
  3. When you have less time than your colleagues – Yes, you may be the boss. But here is no need to behave like a traditional manger. That’s old school. Helpful leaders are those who make teams excel and perform. But yes, you have the right to sometimes shift your tasks to others. Again: Ask them to walk the documentation mile for you and say please and thank you.
  4. When you don’t know better – A lot of people are still new to real digital collaboration. Respect them and let them be ignorant for a while. There will be time for educating them eventually.

It is important to really make these exceptions an exception. I guess these are more or less commen sense. But in a lot of companies, you’ll see people making these exceptions their standard mode of working on mails.

It comes down to a question of trust and goodwill:

  • Do you think your coworkers abuse these exceptions? Can you trust them?
  • Do you get sloppy and bend your situation to make your own life easier with these exceptions?

Let’s be clear. It’s faster to use email sloppy. It’s also easier and more comfortable. But it’s like protecting the environment. It’s a game of trust and solidarity. You don’t let the water run while you brush your teeth, do you? You don’t put batteries or toxic liquids in the organic waste basket? Almost no one can check that. But most people try their best not to do more harm than necessary.

Your contribution and behavior for a better email culture

The same is true for email. This is how you can contribute to a better email culture in your company:

  • Trust others by default – Start with your perception of others. You should believe that they are doing their best to use email in a way that benefits your company in an optimal way. There is always room to grow. But you respect that some simply do not know better. It’s a good feeling and increasing your karma.
  • Take the extra mile for others – The rules for good email usage are simple. And you probably know them already. Put files in a place where they can easily be versioned (e.g. Atlassian Confluence oder Google Drive) and only share links. Put tasks in a task management system like JIRA (or Basecamp or Trello). Do not participate in email discussions but try to move them into a group chat solution like HipChat or a collaboration solution like Linchpin. It does take time and energy. But you’re doing good to your company culture and digital collaboration. It’s worthwhile.
  • Start educating others about good email manners – Share your knowledge about the right mail communication with others and make them leaders of a beneficial collaboration as well. You’ll see that it is easier than you think and you can convince a lot of people to try.
  • Do not let a taker put you down – If you experience that others, especially higher level managers, think that they do not have to be helpful leaders in good mail manners, ignore them. If you cannot bear it, it is fine to pay them back by not sticking to the rules they break either. But do not become an email asshole just because others are. It’s like with the enviroment. The world only gets worse if you surrender and become a polluter. Don’t be that loser.

A last word for your motivation: Getting your company from email hell to collaboration heaven is a long way and definitely not on your official task list. But the payoffs of good email behavior benefit you from day one.

Every task that is not born in an email, every document or page that is hosted in Confluence, every discussion that is done through HipChat is saving you and your team time. I know of no way to measure it and no way to give you the ROI. But it is happening. The dividends are payed back to you. This game has a way more instant gratification than saving the environment.

So get up and get going. Good collaboration with your co-workers is waiting at the end of the tunnel.

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