Effective communication is a key leadership trait and one of the 5 Cs of team accountability, and in today’s world, a lot of that communication happens over email. One report said in 2019, an average of 126 business emails is sent and received per person per day. That is a lot of email to process effectively.
I recently read an HBR article on why email is so stressful; the author cited a study showing "the average professional spends 4.1 hours per day responding to work messages,” and emphasized that even if the time spent in your inbox is less, stress about unanswered messages eats away at most workers’ brain space and productivity throughout the day.
There are a lot of great personal productivity tips around managing email, but think about all the time and energy you waste as a team. Improving internal email habits can be a minor major to improve team productivity and employee engagement. I recently watched a webinar on improving team email practices from the productivity experts at GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done), and the big idea is that it only takes one or two team members with bad habits to undermine the productivity of the team.
3 Team Email Habits to Improve Productivity:
1. Limit the number of places to receive messages:
Many workplaces use email (sometimes multiple inboxes), Slack or another chat application, texting, voicemails or even a physical inbox on your desk to receive incoming communications. Think right now about all the different places you look for work to do—how many inboxes do you have to process communication? Having too many inboxes increases the likelihood that something will fall through the cracks and takes more time to process.
With your team, you can set some rules of engagement for using the different communication channels available. For example, you may say chat/text is fine for a quick question, but any requests that require another person to complete a task must go through their email inbox or be added as an Action in a project management tool.
In addition to setting some boundaries with the team so you don’t end up chasing sticky notes and voicemails and chat messages all day, you can use automation to help you bring your work into one or two inboxes.
2. Write emails with clear subject lines and direct next steps:
This seems obvious, but many people will write “Questions” or leave the subject line blank. As part of your rules of engagement, include some guidelines for writing clear and direct subject lines. A subject like "Submit your lunch order by 10:30 am" is more likely to get you the information you need than “Lunch.”
Some people on our team even use tags in the headline like “ACT: Edit this slide deck by tomorrow afternoon” or “READ: Article on best practices” or “URGENT: This client needs a support call as soon as possible.” Including the tag helps people know if the email requires them to do something and when. It’s important to discuss this with the team and agree on how you will do it so that people don’t receive an email with ACT in the subject line and think you are yelling at them.
As for the body of the message, be clear and concise. Don’t write a paragraph when a few bullets will do, and be sure to always highlight the action you want the person to take. You might use a protocol like this:
@Vanessa - please review the attached proposal for the meeting
@Ryan - please reserve the conference room for Thursday at 1
@Danielle - FYI
This way, everyone receiving the message knows why and what to do next. If you do nothing else to improve your emails, always either end or begin the message with a clear statement of actions required. It can help to bold, highlight, or make action steps a different color so the person reading your email can immediately discern what to do with it.
3. Keep track of what you are waiting for:
This last tip really resonated with me. Most of us send out an email request and spend a lot of time waiting for the other person to respond or take action. Create a system to keep track of emails you are waiting for the other person to respond to so you aren’t keeping this information in your head, or worse, firing off a request for something and then forgetting about it completely.
Increase your accuracy and accountability by keeping emails that you need to follow up on in a folder that you check every other day (or at the right frequency for you.) Make sure nothing slips through the cracks so you can keep your commitments as a team and offer nudges when others are late to respond.
It can help to create some guidelines around this, too. For example, you can communicate expectations that everyone should respond to internal email requests within a business day, and if that doesn’t happen, you can make clear that reminders are welcome.
You can make changes to your personal email habits, but the impact of that on your productivity is limited if you are still being CC’d on everything, receiving messages that are paragraphs long with no subject line, and getting bombarded with requests in your inbox, your voicemail, and your company Slack channel. Share these tips with your whole team, and take a few minutes to write out a short list of things you can all commit to doing to communicate more productively as a team.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some others you may like:
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images