How you write, respond and relate to company emails can have a big effect on productivity. It could also make you lose sight of your true value to the business.
Email is a necessary evil inside of the business world. While it allows us to communicate and collaborate on potentially billion dollar ideas to our co-workers, it also enables us to send looping videos of keyboard playing kitty cats. Cute cats aside, emails become their most evil incarnate when they're written without consideration. Poorly constructed messages can quickly turn into time sucking reply-all chains requiring more time from the recipients to understand what the sender intended, than what it would've taken to draft a better email in the first place.
In an always-connected work environment, email is regularly referred to as the number one zapper of productivity. Whether it's being forced to go back to the sender to inquire about their actual intentions or simply being distracted by the ongoing pings of new messages arriving, when not treated with respect or perspective, email can quickly take over your work and personal life as well as lull you into forgetting what your real value is to the business.
When Google's Director of Research, Peter Norvig, was asked how he achieves work/life balance, his answer was pretty insightful. He understands that first and foremost his job is about making good decisions for the long run and not just responding to something that popped up in his inbox a few minutes ago.
Norvig provided Sam Lightstone the following quote which was captured inside the book, Making it Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great., where he boils down his perspective on the role he plays at Google and how he prevents his job from overtaking his personal life:
"People get out of balance when they see their value as being able to respond quickly. If I see myself as a machine for answering email, then my work life would never stop because my email never stops. If instead I see my value as separating the important from the unimportant and making good decisions on the important, then I can go home at a reasonable hour, spend time with my family, ignore my email and phone messages all weekend long, and make sure that when I return to work, I am in the right mood to make the good decisions."
Of course, in our digitally-driven world, email isn't going anywhere soon and separating the important from the unimportant requires us to invest a certain amount of time engaging with it. So, since the email shoe is often on our own foot as the sender, the best thing we can do is maintain perspective of the role we're in place to play within the organization and draft and respond to emails with that value in mind. Additionally, modeling good email writing etiquette will not only help us to promote our intended value in our messaging but will also help to prevent our emails from turning into time sucking productivity killers.
The following are four questions management consultant Carson Tate suggests we ask whenever writing or responding to an email:
Who? This breaks down into two sub-questions: "Who needs to respond to, take action on, or make a decision about this information?" Put their name(s) on the to: line. "Who needs to know this information?" Put their name(s) on the cc: line.
Why? Look back at the names on the to: line and the cc: line. For each name, ask yourself, "Why is this person involved in the project?"…Make sure the tone, style, and content of your email matches up—just as you would choose appropriate words, tone, and body language if you were sitting across a table from them and discussing the topic in person…
What? "What is the purpose of the email?…What are the key facts? What references or research data need to be included?"…
How? Ask yourself, "How do I want recipients to respond?" Describe this explicitly in your email. If there's a deadline, say so. If you want an email response, say that…Never assume that people will understand what you want—tell them as straightforwardly as possible.
Considering the who's, why's, what's and how's when drafting your emails will help you to convey your messages more clearly and get the results you're intending in as few emails as possible. Applying this process should also help you keep perspective on your true value to the organization. However, while consistently demonstrating this messaging approach may get less considerate co-workers to improve their own email game, I think it's going to be a long time until Piano Cat stops making appearances in our inbox.