Two simple tips to reduce email

glyph-paperplane-150For all the recent developments in social technology, email remains the dominant form of digital communication. But unnecessary email is a productivity drain.

For all the new developments in communications involving social media tools, email continues to be a daily burden for most information and knowledge-based roles. And mobile devices ensure we can access it (just about) anywhere. Here are two simple tips that could help significantly reduce the volume of email at work and free up time to go do something more interesting instead. (Brits of a certain age should start humming ‘Why don’t you..?’) Genuine spam emails… well that’s a whole other matter. But there really is no excuse for business spam draining productivity.

1. Change the channel

The first tip is technology-focused. Change the medium. Email is great for person-to-person questions and answers, and prompts that don’t require an instant response. If somebody is busy with something else, all email can wait. But at least it is stacked up in a neat digital pile waiting to be dealt with. But many communications do require an instant response and work is increasingly collaborative beyond two people. Relying on email for these scenarios creates unnecessary overheads and distractions.

Two channels can help reduce ineffective email: instant messaging and enterprise social networks.

Instant messaging trumps email when an instant response is needed. Presence status (online or offline) gives an immediate indication of the likelihood of getting a response – you only message with people who are currently online. This saves sending an email out to multiple people, only for all  but one to find out they didn’t need to bother reading it because the one had already provided a response. Instant messaging can also be used for 1:1 and group-based chats. Sessions can be recorded if the content has any value for non-participants to view on-demand later. But instant messaging is at its best for rapid real-time interactions. Answer the question, close the chat window and move on, no need to file the outcome.

Enterprise social networks (ESN) trump email for conversations involving more than two participants, providing an organised threaded conversation that new members can easily join and catch-up on what has already been said or shared.  ESNs can be updated in real-time like instant messaging, but can also pause whilst people get on with other matters, later returning to check on updates and comment if necessary. They can be tagged, making it easier to find and join discussions, and avoid duplicating the same conversation in multiple different silo’d groups, as can often happen when using email.

2. Change behaviour

The second tip is people-focused. Change habits. Whilst many people are quick to moan about how many unnecessary emails they receive at work, they are often as guilty as the next person for adding to the overload. Are people hitting ‘cc-all/reply-all’ because they think everyone needs to be informed of the response or because they want to be seen to be communicating? How many emails are sent out in bulk ‘for information purposes’. All of those should be up on an intranet, not bouncing around messaging networks. Use email for the exceptions, the alerts, the prods where action is required from that specific individual, the recipient of the email.

A simple rule of thumb – if people are setting up rules to automatically route incoming emails of a certain type to a certain folder, that email isn’t worth sending.

The quickest and easiest way to reduce email within an organisation is to start at the top, with management. If people are suffering from the ‘cover your arse’ syndrome that is cc-all/reply-all, that’s a management issue. If people are distributing out standard reports and updates where no action is required, that’s a management issue. And the excuse is always the same: ‘…it’s the way things are done around here’. So to change is simple. Get managers to stop doing it and others will soon follow.

And if you don’t believe me, a report has been produced by other consultants who have found exactly the same outcome and quantified the results. As reported in the Harvard Business Review last month. Targeting just the senior management team within an organisation, the goal was to cut their email output by 20% within four months. Within three months, total email output from the group had dropped by 54% and the ripple effects led to a 64% drop across all employees.

The report can be viewed online: To Reduce E-mail, Start at the Top – Harvard Business Review, September 2013