Virtual Teams

What stops us writing great emails?

photo: "@" symbol in sandA recent Harvard Business Review  management tip on writing emails focused on tips such as: get straight to the point, keep it brief and write a short but informative subject line. It’s all good, if pretty basic, advice.

When we ask people on our virtual teams training programs to come up with their top tips for the perfect e-mail, they instantly generate these, plus a raft of others:

  • only send an e-mail to the relevant people
  • make sure that the essence of the message is visible in the preview pane in case people don’t open it fully
  • avoid cc’s and particularly bcc
  • put the names of any people with actions in the subject line
  • etc. etc.

A quick Internet search will quickly generate hundreds of e-mail etiquette suggestions, and policies. Tn fact I’ve rarely met someone who genuinely doesn’t know how to write the perfect e-mail. I’ve also never met someone who consistently sends great ones.

So at one level e-mail guidelines are simply common sense, but if I can extend the famous quote (often attributed to architect Frank Lloyd Wright) quote a bit:

 “There is nothing more uncommon than the consistent application of common sense.”

What is it that stops us sending the great e-mails that we know we can and developing a healthy e-mail culture?

  • The technology makes it too easy. It costs us nothing to “Reply to all”, but it takes time to select the right addressees. Why not see if you can disable “reply to all” as an option on your e-mail system? Ask your IT people.
  • Careless communication – mathematician/physicist Blaise Pascal said “I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one.” It takes time and thought to come up with very clear communication and often we have a limited supply of either.
  • We have developed a culture of over involvement. We have teams, meetings and conference calls for everything and, because we think everything needs to be done collectively, we fall into the trap of over sharing information. Ask yourself what the recipient will actually do with this information, if it’s nothing, don’t send it.
  • Lack of ownership – most organizations don’t have anyone who “owns” e-mail culture apart from functions like legal or IT who might worry about actionable content or storage space. Unnecessary e-mails costs large organizations millions of dollars per year. I can guarantee you they have full-time people managing much lower levels of quality problem and waste. Put someone in charge and treat unnecessary communication as a scrap reduction project.

Finally, take a look at your own e-mails, it’s easy to complain about others but do you live up to the standards you already know about? If 75% of all e-mails in your organization are irrelevant, there’s a good chance that 75% of the ones you send are irrelevant too! It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you do.

Also take a look at moving from push technologies such as e-mail that interrupts people, towards pull technology such as social media or blogs where information is available for people when they need it.

It is really hard to change the e-mail culture of a whole organization, but you can start by improving your e-mails and discussing this with your close colleagues and team members. Once you have made a start and improved your own situation, you then have a platform to push back against others.

Why not….?

  • If you have challenges in communicating remotely, of which e-mail is only one part, ask about our video package on improving communication through technology. There’s a useful form to the right of this page on most devices to help, or call us at your convenience.
  • Find out about our virtual teams training.
  • Find out how to save time by being more effective.


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