Slogging Through Email Is Probably Why You're Worried About Your Productivity

As a professional speaker and trainer, I meet new clients almost every week. When I ask what their biggest challenge is at work, the most common response is, “I am overwhelmed.” When I ask what is overwhelming them, they almost always say email communication.

As George Bernard Shawn once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

This seems to be backed by data. Research by The McKinsey Global Institute found the average employee spends 13 hours a week reading and responding to email. That’s 28 percent of a person’s work time. To put it in perspective a little more, that’s 650 hours – or 16 weeks – a year spent on email.

So the question that comes up time and time again is “how do we fix it?” There may not be a fix, but there are ways to reduce email, tune it up, improve communication and get people to think instead of being reactive.

Think first, send second.

We need to train employees to be more thoughtful. Email shouldn’t be their default form of communication or the automatic “go to” tool. Team members need to ask themselves some important questions first:

For this message, is email the best way to deliver the information?

Would some other channel of communication work better? Examples are a phone call, in-person meeting, group meeting, voice mail, Skype, Slack message or group call.

Could a video, graphic, PowerPoint or picture work better?

Be thoughtful about who we copy on the email. I was once a vice president in corporate America – and guess what? I quickly learned that everyone copied me on everything. The result was 800 to 1,000 emails a day on average, which was hard to manage. In my experience, most people copy too many people in emails. They do this partly a defensive move so they can say “well, of course, you knew about it, I copied you!”

Incentives and rewards. In many organizations, team members are rewarded (explicitly or implicitly) for sending more emails and faster emails – not sending fewer. We don’t reward people for being more effective communicators; we reward them for being high-frequency communicators. An email sent doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good email. Maybe the best email is one that is never sent at all. Leaders need to monitor, give feedback and coach team members on their communication effectiveness and reward team members for being more efficient.

Set guidelines about email. When we study high-performance organizations, we find written behavioral standards. Very few organizations think about having standards or guidelines about email. I am not suggesting hard and fast rules, but guidelines. There can be guidelines about:

The kinds of topics are that are appropriate for email

How many times emails go back and forth before going to another channel of communication

How we decide who to copy

What is the response time for answering people expect

If a group can get together and decide on some guidelines, email communication can improve.

The CEO of one of the companies I worked with years ago decided to make all Fridays “email-free Fridays.” No one was allowed to send or read an email on Friday. He wanted to get people to communicate more, connect more and have more face-to-face meetings. The results? Communication improved, and people started meeting with others in-person. Not only that, but they started doing it more on other days of the week too.

Like a river of information, the emails will keep coming every day. As an organization, you have to help people navigate the waters.

By Shawn Doyle, first published on August 10, 2018