• Tim

Compassionate email...

When discussing ways to build a mentally healthier workplace during our courses, email often comes up. And not in a good way. It's often a problem for people and it's definitely an emotive topic.


I've experienced the constant deluge of emails myself in previous roles, receiving more than 100 emails every day - including when I'm not in the office or on holiday! For a whole bunch of reasons this used to force me to deal with my emails in the evenings, at weekends, during training courses and when on holiday. I never fully switched off from work as a result.


Like most things, email is a fantastic tool, if used well. If not, it can sap your time and energy, often adding significantly to your stress levels and eating into your personal time.


Sound familiar? Developing a compassionate email culture that minimises email-induced stress for everyone can only be a good thing.


Even if you think you've got a pretty good email culture in your organisation, read on to find out more about how you can use email better...


Change?


If you want to change the email culture in your organisation, it's going to take time and energy, but the rewards may well be worth it.


A better email culture makes people more efficient and effective, whilst also contributing to everyone's wellbeing and mental health.


To develop a compassionate email culture, those within your network (including you) are going to have to do things differently. This may just require small changes, or it may need an organisation level campaign. Either way though...

Instead of focussing on just getting through your inbox, try to think about how you can help other people to manage theirs. The better you use email, the less impact you'll have on others, which will reflect back on you.


If you can successfully build the way you use email into a habit, and then share it with others, the culture will start to shift.


Focus on protecting other people’s inboxes – it’ll pay dividends for you both.


Really?


Let's knock an easy one off first. Do you really need to tell anyone? Do you really need to reply or forward that email?


Most people would say they have too many emails in their inbox. Any you can not send will reduce the burden.

If you're familiar with the 'Urgent-Important' matrix, this helps us to identify where we should be focussing our valuable time and energy.


If the email is about something in Quadrant 4 resist the urge to write, reply or forward it as this just creates more unnecessary traffic. Just delete it and move on to something more relevant from Q1, Q2 or Q3...


Only send email if it’s urgent and/or important.


Right Tool?


Once you've decided that this really is something worth spending some of your valuable time on, the next question should be whether email is the right tool.


You wouldn't try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer (hopefully).

Sometimes people get so used to using email as a convenient and available method of communication, they forget to consider the other options.


Would another method of communication be better, such as...

  • Face-to-face conversation (remember those?!)

  • Phone or video call

  • Message channel (Microsoft Messages, WhatsApp, Slack or whatever)

If you need an immediate response, call someone. Using email tells the person you expect them to be checking their email all the time - a really bad habit that contributes to the dependency on devices and our inability to switch off. More about that later.


Likewise, if something requires a discussion, talking to the person is soooo much quicker. If it requires more than one other person, would a different channel be better, or can it wait until the next time you're all in a meeting together?


If something is sensitive, such as constructive feedback, perhaps you should do that face-to-face. It might make it feel easier over email, but no one likes to hear it like this. Be brave and chat with them.


Oh, and NEVER send an email when you're annoyed. If you find it cathartic, write your response and then save it in your draft folder. Sleep on it and then come back and delete it the next day.


Use email for routine work. It’s usually not the best tool for conversation or things that are urgent or sensitive.


Agree the Rules


Arguably one of the most important factors is to agree on how you're going to use email with the people you use it with. Working out and agreeing what is expected and acceptable is just as important as working out what is not.


This may be relatively easy to do within your team or organisation, but ideally, you also want to do it with everyone else you're in regular email contact with. Putting your key rules or principles in your email footer will spread the word quickly and to the right people!


My own email footer tells everyone that I work flexibly and I don't expect them to read or respond to my emails until their normal working hours.


The rules you choose in your email culture don’t have to be the ones I’ve written about here (although clearly they’re worth considering!!!). They need to work for you and the people you email in your organisation and network.

Agree on what is expected and acceptable, and what is not.


Need to Know?


It can be really tempting to copy lots of people into your email in case they might want to know. However, for every additional person you include, this is one more email in their inbox, and potentially several more replies in yours.


I've met several people who have an automated email rule that puts anything they are CC'd in to in a separate folder. This is one way of getting the traffic out of your inbox but clearly has some risks if you don't look at it regularly.


Focussing on only sending the email to people who absolutely NEED to know will save everyone (including you) time and effort. You can always copy others in later if it becomes apparent that they need to know.


If you have a culture where people copy lots of people in to cover their backs, 'just in case', perhaps there are other cultural or trust issues that need to be dealt with first.

To cut down on traffic, try to get into the habit of reviewing your distribution list before you hit the send button. If you've got people in the CC box - do they really need to know?


Check before you send – do they all NEED to know?


Be Clear and Concise


If you do need to send an email, no one wants to read lengthy, waffly emails. If you've got a lot to say, ask yourself whether this might be better as a document, phone/video call or meeting.


Writing succinctly is a good habit to get into and will make you more efficient generally. Often just using bullet points or single sentence paragraphs can help you achieve this.


Be clear about what you want from the reader. Do you want a particular action? If so, what is it and when do you need it. Putting this at the end of your email ensures that it doesn’t get lost or forgotten. If it’s info only, say so.


Another trap people fall into is addressing more than one issue in the same email. Doing this invariably leads to confusion and things getting lost when people pick up on one issue and not the other(s). Definitely not efficient or effective.

Focussing on one issue also allows you to write a clear subject line so that emails are easy to locate and it’s obvious what they’re about.


Be clear and concise - one issue per email.


Now, Now, Now…


One of the most contentious factors in email culture is often when emails should be sent and read. One camp thinks it’s the responsibility of the sender, the other the responsibility of the reader.


Personally, I think it’s both.


If you’re the sender, considering when you send an email is courteous. If you send it outside of someone’s working hours, will they feel they should read it when they’re supposed to be playing with their children or unwinding before bed?


You can set a good example to others by only sending emails during their working hours (assuming you know what these are), or during normal working hours. If you work flexibly, why not try saving your emails as drafts, or working offline so they won’t send until you reconnect, or even scheduling them to send at a particular time (if your email client allows it).


If you’re the receiver, it’s also your responsibility not to read emails outside of your working hours. You need time off from work and you should work hard to protect it. There will always be more work than you have time for – your job is to prioritise tasks within the time and resources available.


Turn off your phone, turn off notifications, turn on do not disturb, whatever. Your phone is trying to be the most important thing in your life - don't let it.


If you're working from home, turn off your laptop and put it away somewhere - try to enforce a separation between work and personal space and time.


If you don’t know the emails are there, you won’t be tempted to read and reply to them. Yes, there will be a few more to deal with in the morning, but at least you’ve had some quality time away from work. Your well-being is extremely important.


Consider when you send and receive emails to protect your own and other people's downtime.


Email Management


One of the best bits of management training I ever did, sticks with me today. Turn off email notifications on all your devices, all of the time. Instead, schedule time in your diary to do emails. Personally, I do them 3 times a day. First thing in the morning, before or after lunch and at the end of the day.


Resisting the urge to check them also allows you to focus on the productive work you're doing, rather than constantly trying to task-switch between issues. Research shows that constant task-switching is really inefficient.


When I learned about scheduling email time, I also learnt about the four D’s. A great efficiency hack that fits with the 'Urgent-Important' matrix we looked at earlier.


When going through your inbox, look at each email in turn and decide whether you will…

  • Do it now – quick responses you can fire off straight away. Good for Q1 tasks.

  • Date activate it – add it to your task management system (which shouldn’t be your email inbox!) with a date to deal with it. Good for Q2 tasks.

  • Delegate it – pass it on to someone else, add it to your tracking system if necessary. Good for Q3 tasks.

  • Delete it – Q4 tasks live in your ‘bin’!

Obviously, each of these actions needs a system behind it. If you create an efficient system for managing tasks, email just becomes a way of communicating, rather than your task management app.


More contemporary apps often bring communication and task management seamlessly together to help with this particular issue.


Schedule time for email management and then apply the 4 D's to your inbox!


Summary


Becoming more efficient and effective in how you use email will mean that you're doing your bit to create a more compassionate email culture. Helping others to do the same will magnify the effect.


A compassionate email culture is a fundamental part of a mentally healthy workplace.


If you want to know more, why not get in touch to discuss running training for your organisation.