This article was based on episode 64 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.
For many teams, email is still the primary form of staying connected. Even with the proliferation of digital collaboration tools, we rely heavily on email to share information, ask questions, gather input and make decisions. Yet so many of us feel overwhelmed by our overflowing inboxes.
While not all emailing occurs within a team, much of it does. Just like any other collaborative practice, having explicit agreements for when and how email should be used can streamline communications and save everyone time and energy.
To help your team better communicate via email and elsewhere, here are four principles to help you align from a conceptual level down to a logistics level.
PRINCIPLE #1: CLARIFY WHAT BELONGS IN AN EMAIL (VS CHAT VS MEETING VS PHONE CALL VS TEXT MESSAGE)
Email is only one form of communication in our communication tool box. It’s helpful to be aligned on when and why to use email, as well as when to opt for a different, more appropriate method.
Each team is different so there are no hard and fast rules about email as a modality. In general, email is typically well suited for:
Sharing one-way information, similar to an update or memo.
Communicating with external stakeholders who aren’t on your other communication platforms.
Asking multiple choice questions or a few simple open ended questions at once.
Starting a discussion to gauge if a meeting is necessary.
Delivering documents or links to additional content
To help figure out where email fits within your communication practices, take stock of all your current options (e.g. Slack, Asana, in-person meetings, Skype meetings, email, text message, direct phone calls, Evernote, Google Docs, WhatsApp, InVision App, etc) and identify what each modality is best used for. Consider doing this activity as a team and brainstorming the following:
Where should tasks get assigned?
Where should different types of decisions get made?
Where should urgent requests be made?
Where should different types of information be shared?
Where should feedback be gathered?
Where should relationships be fostered?
Be as nuanced as you can. For example, you may decide that some information should be shared BY email but not IN an email. All meeting notes should be typed and stored in the meeting tool Lucid Meetings, but then shared by email to all team members regardless of whether they attended the meeting.
PRINCIPLE #2: CRAFT THOUGHTFUL EMAILS
Now that you know when and why to write an email, let’s consider how to write appropriate emails.
Email has become a quick form of communication which sometimes manifests as poorly thought out and poorly written messages. Shorter, more succinct emails are generally better than longer ones, but they can take more time to write. Pausing to invest those extra few minutes is worth it because you’ll reduce the need for back and forth exchanges if the information is clear from the start.
As a team, commit to improving the quality of your email communications as a way to reduce the quantity.
When assigning tasks or making a request...include the 3 Ws - Who is the task assigned to, What is the action, and When should it be done. The more specific you can be, the better.
If the request isn’t clear, the writer puts the onus on the reader to figure it out, making it more likely that the request won’t be completed as intended.
When sharing one-way information or gathering individual responses...Include a line that says “No need to respond” or “If you have questions, reply to me only.” This way other people on the email wont be inundated with responses that aren’t relevant to them. Don’t assume that everyone knows that.
When writing subject lines...Use a subject line structure that clearly indicates the purpose of the message. This not only makes it easier for the reader to know what they’re opening, it simplifies future searching because you can quickly get the gist of the email when scanning through your old archive.
Personally, I like protocols that include bracketed words at the start of a subject line followed by a headline such as [ACTION] Your input needed on Monday’s client meeting agenda.
Here are a few common terms your team may want to bracket:
Action or Action Needed
Response Needed or Response Optional
As a team, brainstorm and agree to a few bracketed terms and how to use them. Remember, not every email needs a bracketed term, but if you can’t figure out what term to use, consider if the purpose of the email is clear enough.
PRINCIPLE #3: STRUCTURE EMAIL CONSISTENTLY
One thing that makes email challenging is that everyone writes differently and organizes their thoughts differently. Without being too strict, it’s worth a discussion with your team about how to structure emails and use formatting consistently to help draw people’s attention to the most important information.
You can start with the need or the feature, whichever feels more comfortable for you.
Here are a few needs to explore:
How do you signify tasks or requests - using bold, new lines, etc?
How should responses to specific questions be written - embedded in the prior email or copy and pasted into the new drafting area?
How should headers be used in longer emails?
If attaching additional content, should the documents or links be listed so everyone knows what items are there?
Should meeting agendas be attached or linked to, embedded in the email body, or in the calendar invite?
Here are a few features to explore:
What type of content should be bolded?
When should something be in all caps?
What types of information should be in lists?
How should italics be used?
How should font colors and highlights be used?
The goal is to identify a few simple practices that will have outsized impact. We all want to avoid overtaxing people by asking them to remember too many formatting requirements. These things may seem small, but they can have a surprising impact on readability.
PRINCIPLE #4: AGREE ON NICETIES AND NORMS
Is that “Thank you!” response really necessary? Will you upset the other person if you don’t send it? Or will you bother them with another needless email in their inbox if you do?
There is no standard for email niceties, yet leaving it up to individual preferences can be a recipe for disaster. Make a decision as a team regarding what niceties are expected.
Consider how your team will handle these common niceties:
Begin an email with a salutation and the recipient’s name
End the email with a sign off and your name
Send a “thank you” email after someone completes a request
Send a reminder email if a deadline is nearing
Niceties are only one form of email norms that a team should agree on. It’s worth being explicit on other email practices such as:
What is an appropriate time frame for responding to email?
Should email be read/replied to outside of work hours? If yes, are there any limits?
Should email be read/replied to while on vacation?
What happens if approval is sought and there is no response? What does a non-response mean and how should it be handled?
What if an email is urgent? Should the sender also alert the recipient via another method?
How should senders use the “to” and “cc” lines?
MAKE EFFECTIVE EMAIL A TEAM EFFORT
Take the time to align your team’s email (and other communication) practices. Frame email as one form of communication and that you’d like to explore how each of your communication modes are used, starting with email.
Focus on the areas the group feels will be the most useful. Do you need to reconsider when and why to send an email? Would establishing common formatting and structure help? Or maybe agreeing to common subject lines or response timeframes.
Whatever you decide to do, schedule a follow up for 2-4 weeks later so you can collectively reflect on how its going. Try using a start-stop-continue approach to determine next steps.
Ask: What benefits are we experiencing? Have any new challenges surfaced? What does the group want to continue doing, stop doing and try doing next?
Make it an iterative process so the team is continually refining and enhancing it’s email practices. Over time, everyone will enjoy the benefits of fewer emails, clearer content, and explicit expectations.
To help you implement these principles, the free miniguide contains an overview of the principles and practices for you to share with your team. The full guide contains a sample meeting agenda and activities to help you facilitate the decision-making process for new team email practices. The full guide for this episode is available to members of the Modern Manager community and for individual purchase at the store.
This article was based on episode 64 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.