The Email Quandary

If you’re like me, you probably spend a significant proportion of your working hours reading and writing email. The problem is, like most modern marvels of office automation, email can end up increasing, rather than decreasing work.

Even in our small (eight person) organization, we have a radically divergent continuum of email use. Everyone uses email, but some use it just for external communications, while others use it to communicate with an officemate who’s 10 feet away. I’m sure that the problem is worse in larger organizations.

The email-centric often treat email like a guided missile: launch it via cc:, and it will use its heatseeker warhead to home in on the correct target. That’s just not the case. Email works as a “fire-and-forget” communications medium under the following circumstances:

1) If the author is ending a discussion
2) If the author is opening a discussion that is expected to be very short, e.g. 1-2 exchanges
3) If the author is opening a discussion that is expected to be very long, e.g. a week or more
4) If the author is participating in a free-form discussion which none of the participants wants to end
5) If the email is completely self-contained

By the way, points 4 and 5 explain why email is so incredibly popular as a medium for leisure communication. I’ve lost count of the jokes, funny stories, Darwin Awards, and LEGO pornography that I’ve received over the years.

Email is the wrong medium for any complex, interactive discussion that you want to resolve in less than an hour. For these discussions, you need to speak in person, or over the telephone. Any discussion that goes through more than 3 exchanges back and forth should probably be switched to phone or in person.

So when you’re tempted to hit the “Reply All” button, remember to do a few things:

1) Use a meaningful subject line
2) Clearly delineate action items
3) Attach an individual person’s name to each action item
4) Ask yourself if you really need to send it.

I won’t be able to publish on Thursday or Friday, since we’ll be moving our office, but we’ll resume our regularly scheduled ranting on Monday.

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