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Opinion Fed up with the endless email bombardment? Me too

Sarah Geraghty says there are better ways to send, manage and read through emails, to make work life more bearable.

ENDLESS EMAIL BOMBARDMENT has become one of our clients’ top two most commonly reported frustrations. The other one? Badly-run meetings. But more on that another time.

Pharma, engineering, legal, the civil service. You name it, every sector is under siege from a communication that was invented to make our work lives more, not less, productive.

“My job is about sending emails to get emails. I’m managing the flow 24/7 — even when I’m on calls,” says a partner in a Big 4 professional services firm. And she’s not alone.

A survey by Adobe found that people spent more than three hours a day checking their inbox. Mindlessly hitting refresh while driving, watching TV, in bed, over dinner, in meetings.

And that’s just email.

How often are you interrupted during the workday by pings from instant messaging platforms like Microsoft Chat and Slack?

Combined with emails, it could be every 6 minutes, according to a Harvard Business Review article.

So how do we manage this?

Companies like Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have made admirable efforts such as switching off email access in the evenings and weekends. Car manufacturer Daimler allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on holiday.

But unless we fix the way we communicate during work hours, the problem isn’t going away.

So here’s some advice.

If you’re the sender, remember that all good communications are objective-led. Without that, you — and your reader — are on a road to nowhere.

Before you even look at your keyboard, you need to be forensically clear on the point.

Think of my client who had 900 unread emails waiting for them after 10 days’ annual leave.

Why should they care enough to open — let alone read — your email? What needs to happen by the time they have? Is there a clear call to action? Are you sharing important information?

Be clear

Avoid the pitfall of burying your point to the end. The reader is well within their rights to have hit ‘delete’ and moved on with their life by that stage.

Get to the point in your subject line. And get to it again as early as possible in the body of your email.

Military professionals use the acronym BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front. In other words, say what you want or need immediately and then back it up with context. Keep your sentences short, your language simple.

Repeat the ask — or the point — at the end so the reader is under no illusion as to what it is they need to know or do.

A client recently reminded his team that he did his “email triage” at 5 am while walking the dog — on his Apple Watch. If he didn’t see within milliseconds — on his tiny screen — the point of the message, he wouldn’t read it.

But what if I come across as curt/blunt/rude? I hear you ask.

Firstly, you’re at work. It’s not a treasure hunt.

Secondly, stop placing an undue burden on emails.

People expect them to show that they’re a lovely person, to act as a networking tool, to make sure their direct report knows they need something done ASAP and to bestow upon them wishes for a lovely weekend.

One tool cannot achieve all of this. Trying to do so distracts from the key message.

If you’re concerned about direct emails misrepresenting you as a terrible person, think about your relationship with the recipient. Is it strong enough that they won’t be offended? Consider if an email is the best way of achieving your objective. Maybe pick up the phone?

In his book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, Computer Scientist Cal Newport tells the story of a man who lands in Obama’s White House for a new job.

On his first day, a virus spread through the internal system, meaning nobody has access to their emails for six weeks.

He needed to figure out how he was going to be productive. So he got out and met the people he would have been emailing. Those face-to-face meetings are what he credits with the projects he completed during this time in Washington and ultimately made his time there a success.

The curse of ‘always on’

If you’re struggling to keep up with always-on communications, think about this: Humans aren’t good at multitasking.

Newport cites research that found the average worker had a total of 75 minutes every day that didn’t include a check-in on email or instant messaging — not 75 minutes in a row, just 75 minutes of total uninterrupted work, dotted throughout the day.

Our brains aren’t wired to constantly jump between doing the tasks and manage ongoing online conversations about the tasks.

Allocate time each day to checking emails. Maybe once in the morning and again in the afternoon. And decide what you’re going to do at that time. Reply immediately or delete?

You might need to do some heavy lifting to get to this point. I worked with an academic recently who spent three full days going through his inbox, reducing it from 10,000 unread messages to 24. He said it was worth it for the sleep he got on the night of day three. And for the realisation that most of the unreads were ones he’d been CC’d on for reasons he couldn’t identify.

Turn off notifications on instant messaging — and your phone — when you’re focused on a task that requires uninterrupted thinking time.

And if you’re the one in charge, consider laying down some ground rules (and following them yourself). Take a leaf out of software company GitLab’s internal handbook by telling people their email communications should be explicit in its purpose, brief in its content and not to default to it — that sometimes an old-fashioned chat by phone will clear things up a lot quicker.

Sarah Geraghty is Head of Careers with the Communications Clinic.  

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