By Courtney Mohr
Jan. 26, 2012
Recent stories of companies banning internal email or shutting down mobile access during the holidays may inspire envy from some employees, but extreme actions treat the symptoms rather than the root causes of email woes and mobile addiction.
Instead of throwing the digital baby out with the bathwater, leaders must transform their team’s communication culture and email norms. Here are 12 steps for those seeking to recover from email overload:
- Involve your team in assessing and transforming the culture around email/mobile devices. Identify pain points around email usage today, and then clarify how your team would like to use email in the future. Create and agree to an action plan (e.g., develop off-hours email protocol; conduct training for email effectiveness).-¨
- Schedule regular team updates to reduce the need for one-off emails. While “too many meetings” can be a challenge, having regularly scheduled time to discuss new developments, ongoing issues and upcoming activities for an initiative is valuable. Conducting effective meetings (e.g., clear agenda, effective facilitation, documentation of key outcomes) can reduce lengthy email chains and provide a valuable forum for team members to connect.-¨
- Encourage employees to leverage mobile flexibility in a way that works for them. Many employees appreciate the ability to communicate remotely instead of being tied to a computer. Others may choose to read email outside of work hours to stay in the loop as emails arrive. This flexibility allows both night owls and early birds to catch up on email at their leisure. Just be sure to set clear expectations about expected response times (see next item).
- Be clear about when you will and won’t respond to messages. Communicating expectations for when you will respond to messages helps prevent unwelcome surprises and frustration. Leaders must work with their teams to set appropriate guidelines, such as creating an after-hours out-of-office message asking the sender to call if the request is urgent or identifying hours when employees are not expected to check email and agreeing to call or text if there is a true emergency.
- Improve email quality by including all critical information. Senders should provide the key facts, but refrain from including unnecessary details and extraneous information. Use the subject line to summarize the topic and what is required of recipients (e.g., ACTION REQUESTED BY 2/1: Presentation Content for Investor Meeting).
- Don’t let your inbox be your “to do” list; leverage your email system’s productivity tools. Using your inbox as a primary record of “to dos” can be overwhelming. When you receive an email that requires additional time for resolution, add the item to a master task log that contains all of your outstanding “to dos” (including those generated from outside of email). Microsoft Outlook and other systems provide user-friendly task management tools that can be synched with your PDA.
- Keep your inbox organized and respond quickly to simple requests. First, create subfolders or labels in your inbox for major initiatives or clients. Once you’ve read an email, file it under the appropriate folder or label so that it is easy to locate. Unreturned emails tend to generate more follow-up emails, so try to respond to simple email requests promptly to get them off your plate.
- Develop a common definition of “priority.” Understand the priorities of the team and label emails accordingly (with high, low or normal priority flags). Work with your team to align around priorities, agree to classification protocols and hold each other accountable.
- Reduce the temptation to compulsively check email. Monitoring your inbox minute by minute reduces productivity. Instead, set aside blocks of time for email (e.g., 20 minutes every two hours). Try turning off the new email notification in your taskbar. Also, avoid compulsively checking email during meetings. You may miss key information and, let’s be honest, it’s just rude.-¨
- Consider your alternatives - instant messaging, phone, videoconference, or an in-person meeting may be better than email. Messages communicated via email have a lower likelihood of being interpreted correctly than face-to-face interaction, video conference or phone. Choose your method intentionally based on the message. For example: a quick logistical question is best via instant message, whereas rollout of a new policy may require an introductory email with a link to a pre-recorded video.
- Foster open dialogue about email/mobile usage with your team. Culture and behavior change isn’t easy. Be sure to celebrate improvements, reward successes, share best practices and address relapses.
- Model desired digital behaviors with direct reports and peers. Even well-intended efforts will fail if leaders don’t demonstrate the agreed-upon behaviors. It can be challenging for less senior employees to change if they do not have role models of efficiency and healthy work-life balance.
Courtney Mohr is managing director of the Organization & Talent Solutions Practice for global consulting firm BPI group. Mohr helps her clients build more effective organizations by aligning organization structures to business strategy, matching talent and skills to the right roles, optimizing work processes and improving team dynamics. Mohr can be reached at [email protected].