18 Jun Why email is a great servant but very poor master
Back in 2013, I was contacted by a writer to provide some input into a feature article about email communication. The good, the bad and then the future of email? What will replace it, etc.? I never heard if the article or my input was published, but I stumbled upon my notes recently (thank you Microsoft OneNote!), and was amazed how relevant my responses were even 8 years later.
So I thought I’d update some things and publish those thoughts myself.
Email can be a great tool (servant), of course, but it can too easily become a master over our time. It can become an end in itself. (For those of us old enough to remember the time before email, it’s hard to recall exactly what we did with all the time we had that we now spend answering emails! I think we might have been having more real conversations.)
In order for email to remain the servant and not become the master, we need to be able to take, and keep, control of it.
The good side of email communication: it’s quick, simple and traceable
Few people would want to do away with email altogether. It says something about the power of email that it is still a dominant form of communication, at least in a work context, despite the arrival of all the various messaging tools (such as WhatsApp) and collaboration tools (like Microsoft Teams and Slack).
Email is great when:
- you need to send information to multiple people, especially people outside your organisation
- the idea you wish to communicate is simple
- you need a record of the conversation
- you need to contact someone but don’t wish to disturb them right now
- you need to send attachments
The bad side of email communication: loss of control
Too often, I find people lose control of email by constantly reacting to new messages as they arrive in their inbox, rather than being proactive and having processes in place for how they deal with them. Let’s face it: if you react to every email as it arrives, you could easily spend your entire day doing nothing more than that. That’s hardly very productive (unless responding to email is your one and only job).
Email notifications make you the servant
In my experience, very few people need to operate with their email notifications/alerts turned on. Being alerted every time a new email arrives lures you into the trap of being more responsive and available than you probably need to be. This was true when email first became commonplace, it was still true when I did that interview 8 years ago and it remains true today!
Simply turning this little alert off will immediately eliminate the distraction of constantly arriving emails and allow you to increase the amount of time you spend focused on other important work. You can read more about turning off notifications here. While you’re at it, make sure you also turn off email notifications on your phone as well (along with notifications from apps such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on).
Email shouldn’t be used as a form of urgent communication. If you need to contact someone urgently, call them (or, if you’re under 30 and don’t ‘do’ phone calls, message them). Otherwise, send the email on the understanding that the recipient will reply (if they need to) when they have time to do so.
When not to use email communication
Apart from avoiding email for urgent communication, here are some other times when a different form of communication other than email is probably a good idea:
- The message is complex. It’s far too easy for the meaning of email messages to be taken completely differently from what was intended. Pick up the phone or arrange a face-to-face meeting.
- The conversation involves more than a couple of people. Email chains between more than, say, three people soon become unwieldy as parts of the conversation get lost amongst other emails.
- The person you are emailing has a preference for communicating face to face, in which case they may delay responding for longer than you would like.
- You are communicating bad news or criticism. Again, face to face is better, or at least the phone.
- The conversation gets a little ugly. As soon as an email thread shows signs of descending into the sort of back-and-forth you see in blog comments or online forums, stop and pick up the phone.
- You are angry. Anger is only likely to see you write something you’ll regret later. And if that’s done in an email you can’t take it back!
- You find yourself spending too long trying to get the wording ‘just right’. This is a sure sign that one of the previous points is at play. Again, pick up the phone or arrange a meeting.
Email as a drain on productivity
We all know that email is supposed to be a tool to enhance our productivity. However sometimes the opposite occurs and it works against us. Once again, the servant becomes the master. Here are some things to look out for inside your own organisation that are all indicators that the email master has taken over.
- There is an over-reliance on email communication, with email conversations started where a simple corridor conversation could have done the job. Many of us have experienced this during the Covid-19 pandemic as working from home eliminated those quick face-to-face conversations which instead became new email threads.
- Email is misused and abused, especially via the use of cc or, worse, bcc, in an attempt to play office politics.
- Similarly, when there’s a culture of people sending emails out to multiple recipients (or via cc or bcc) but not being clear about what it is they want and who, specifically, should respond. It’s the email equivalent of inviting everyone to a meeting instead of just those who should be there.
- People don’t learn how to manage their inboxes properly. When everyone in an organisation has an overflowing email inbox, things soon get out of control.
- People don’t learn how to write good constructive emails.
As I said, I made all these points when that writer contacted me back in 2013, but I’m fairly sure you’ll recognise that they are still issues. If anything they’ve become worse. There might be new ways of communicating, but email communication isn’t going anywhere for a while yet as far as I can see.
And we haven’t even touched on the topic of multi-tasking email alongside all those other communication ‘tools’! We’ll come back to those in a future post. Though you may be interested in an article I wrote here – Why conversations in Microsoft Teams can be more efficient than email.
Thank you for reading as always, I’m interested in your thoughts in the comments section below.
Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting. June 2021
Workload and Email Management Training/coaching. MBTI Consultant