Email is a boon or a bane, depending on how you use it. While it often speeds up business processes, it also slows them down. Here are four ways that email can damage an organization’s productivity and force people to clog each other’s inboxes with incomplete or ambiguous information, along with ways to avoid these obstacles easily.
Blurred AccountabilityAn email goes out to six people, saying, “Could someone please get this brochure printed?” Everyone thinks someone else did it. The day before the event at which the brochure is to be handed out, someone in the group emails the rest of the group saying, “Are the brochures ready?” Of course, the brochures were never ordered. Asking everyone to do something is the same as asking no one to do it.
Solution: Always assign action items to an individual person. Ask that person to respond to you, confirming that he knows the action item is his.
Incomplete InformationEvery email subtracts time from a person’s day. The more emails, the more time spent reading and responding. A manager emails her staff, “Let’s meet Thursday afternoon.” They all email her back, “What time?” She responds, “2:30 pm”. They all email her back asking, “Where?” All those extra emails could have been avoided if she had given all the relevant information in the initial email. Or a staff member might write, “Here’s the information you asked for,” and omit a key category.
Solution: Send ALL pertinent information in your initial email. Anticipate the reader’s questions and requirements and give the reader what she needs from the get-go.
Ambiguous Forwarded Messages“Could you tell me Ronnie’s email address?” an assistant asks her boss. Later that day, he forwards her an emailed discussion between two individuals named Metzger and Stevens. She puzzles over the email, wonders what she was supposed to get from it, and sets it aside. Two days later, she again asks her boss, “Can you send me Ronnie’s email address?” He replies, “I sent it already. He’s Ronnie Metzger.” How was she supposed to know?
Solution: Whenever you forward something, add a note at the top that tells the reader why you are forwarding and why it is relevant to him or her. Avoid simply writing “FYI”. Give a context.
Not Changing the Subject LineAn email exchange is traveling between Jane, a CPA, and her client Edward, the owner of a dry cleaning chain, under the subject line “Hawthorne Boulevard Store Audit”. Three emails into the exchange, Edward asks Jane to audit his other three stores. Jane gets the scope of the new project and sets a price, without changing the subject line. Six months later, a dispute arises. Was Jane supposed to reconcile the books for all the stores, or was that Edward’s responsibility? Edward thinks it is Jane’s responsibility, and she thinks it is his. They both want to clarify their original agreement. They search their emails in vain, looking for one that says “Scope of Expanded Audit Project” or something similar. Finally, after hours of reading through email chains, Jane finds the original scope under the other subject line and sends it to Edward. Time and goodwill have been squandered on a misunderstanding that could have been avoided by updating the subject line when the subject changed.
Solution: Change the subject line when you change the subject.
What do all these productivity thieves have in common? All of them show a lack of forethought about the impact the email will have on the receivers, and a failure to anticipate the readers’ questions and needs. When a task is assigned, readers ask, “Who will do it?” The email needs to answer the question. When giving information, ask yourself what the reader will be asking herself and offer the answers proactively. When forwarding, expect the reader to ask, “Why did I receive this?” and give the answer in advance. And when adding to an email chain, remember that the reader uses the subject line to tell him what the email is about. If the email is no longer about what the subject line says, change the subject line.
In the upcoming “Writing Emails That Get a Response” training and webinar, we will work extensively on anticipating the reader’s needs and responding to them. The training is the morning of April 5, 2016 in Orange County, California. The webinar is the morning of April 13, 2016. Register now to learn how to persuade readers to respond to your emails.
What other ways have you found email stealing productivity from your organization? Please email me your insights and I will include them in a future Writamin.
© Elizabeth Danziger 2016