“Email productivity” – to some this may sound like an oxymoron or an office myth. People often complain about messages that have been “swallowed up” by their inboxes, and instead of using built-in email productivity features to find said message, they ask the sender to resend it, further adding to the landfill of unproductive time wastage. Where did this problem originate from? Can email still be used as a productive tool in today’s modern business landscape, and if so what can we do to improve email productivity?
According to McKinsey Global Institute’s Michael Chui, the average employee spends 28% of their workweek reading and answering emails. Another 20% of time is spent looking for internal information, or trying to locate the best person to handle a specific task or issue. Chui proposes that companies instead opt for social technology to be used internally, as it produces a searchable record of knowledge, which can reduce the time employees spend searching for internal data by up to 35% and at the same time improve collaboration. In the report, Chui and his research partners clarify that social technology is not a platform, but rather a function that allows interaction, collaboration and content management.
An example of social technology would be the company’s employee portal or intranet, which is successfully used in many organisations today. Such a tool provides access to employees who need tools, information, knowledge and expertise whenever, wherever. A study conducted by the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) found that 75% of companies who use employee portals deemed it mission-critical. Instead of having to bounce emails around to various team members, employees can simply consult coworkers via the intranet and obtain an answer right away. As a result, internal email communication can be reduced, clients’ questions can be answered right away and tasks can be moved from pending to complete in less time.
Email Productivity after Work Hours?
Professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, Sir Cary Cooper is concerned about the epidemic created by workers’ compulsion to check work email after hours. He recommends that internal email be limited in favour of phone calls and face-to-face meetings. While he does not encourage IT departments to shut down employers’ servers outside of office hours, he said that if emailing is impacting negatively on employees, it might well be necessary to employ such drastic measures in non-time critical environments.
Now, let’s be honest, we all do work outside of office hours sometimes, and by prohibiting that would take away the flexibility that technology brings to the modern workplace. One of the main benefits of technology is that it enables people to connect to other people and resources instantly. Sometimes, time is of the essence and we have to strike while the iron is hot and that requires checking emails outside of office hours. Checking your email while commuting to and from work can be quite productive as it enables you to send quick replies to anything urgent, remove any junk, organize emails into folders, etc. It can free up time for when you sit down at your desk.
Furthermore, many of us receive dozens or hundreds of emails per day! Not checking your email does not make them disappear. Instead, implementing email productivity measures can help limit the amount of time spent on unproductive communication.
Communication Alternatives to Email
All businesses are in favour of efficiency and best business practices. For most, it is an absolute necessity and a daily part of work to communicate via email, especially when collaborating with clients, service providers, and remote workers in different time zones. But there are alternatives to email. At Mikogo, we are all for collaborating together in real-time via screen sharing meetings to save long email threads going back and forth, and instead meet virtually and get to the point quickly while reducing confusion. It’s part of our daily work. When written communication is crucial, we rely heavily on our project management system, JIRA. If such a system seems like overkill for your needs, there are many great social collaboration tools, such as Asana or Freedcamp, to help teams communicate more efficiently than by email.
7 Email Productivity Best Practices
You can definitely move a lot of communications to such project management or social collaboration tools. However email still plays a major role in your daily work and will do so for the foreseeable future. The task at hand now is how to best manage it. Employing email productivity can help reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessarily long feeds, multiple back and forth emails, emails you don’t want to read at all, emails you want to read but not right now, etc.
Here are the seven best tips we have found for email productivity along with tools to help automate the process:
1. Unsubscribe from anything that doesn’t offer value
These days, it seems necessary to subscribe to almost everything before you can access the information you need. That often means that you’re hooked into constant emails about a topic you only wanted to research once-off. If after a while you decide that an email list does not offer significant value to your business, hit “unsubscribe”.
Recommended Tool: Spending valuable time every day, diligently unsubscribing from several lists and not seeing a significant decrease? Go to https://unroll.me/ to see a complete list of all the emails you are subscribed to, allowing easy editing of your preferences.
2. Prevent Inbox Overwhelm
Of course, there are times when you subscribe to lists because they provide valuable information about something you’d like to get to, one day. But in the meantime, those emails are adding to your inbox overflowing with unread emails. One way to deal with this problem, is to add email filters – learn how to do that here.
Recommended Tool: Gmail users have automatically built-in Priority, Social and Promotions inboxes in which all incoming mail is sorted, but if you don’t use Gmail, give Sanebox a try. Sanebox will determine which emails are important, and which not, based on your past and current email activity. Less important emails will go to your @SaneLater folder for future reference, when you have the time to look at it.
3. Send short and on topic responses to the right people
Instead of lengthy, chatty responses, keep it short and stick to the topic at hand. Focus on the critical facts and the action you want the reader to take. At the same time, though, anticipate further questions that your response might evoke in the reader, and answer them. For instance, if the inquiry is about a product you’re selling, and the available colors, your answer should include that it comes in blue, red and green. In addition, include the fact that the red is on special order, and will therefore take a week longer to produce, at an additional cost. By anticipating further questions, you can limit the amount of emails to and from the potential client.
And don’t reply-all or add everyone to the email just for the sake of it. According to mycareertopia.com, the biggest pet peeve for people when receiving emails is “too many reply-alls.” Think about who really needs to be involved before you click send.
Recommended Tool: Do you find yourself constantly retyping the same information in response to inquiries? Mac has a tool known as Text Expander (PhraseExpress for Windows users) which allows you to set up canned responses, which are inserted into your emails via shortcode.
4. Stop forgetting to send attachments!
One of the most time consuming aspects of email, is forgetting to include attachments. Even if you remember it five minutes later and resend the email, the recipient may already have responded “no attachment” to which you need to reply “I sent it again. Did you get it?”.
Recommended Tool: Outlook comes with a built-in reminder service if you are fortunate enough to mention in your email text that there should be an attachment. But if this doesn’t cover all occasions, you can use the Outlook attachment reminder macro or the Gmail Attachment Reminder Greasemonkey script.
5. Make productive use of your subject lines
One of the biggest time wasters when it comes to email productivity, is the fact that many people don’t bother with proper subject lines. A proper subject line not only gives the recipient a quick overview of the content of the email, but it also makes it much easier to find later on. In the same study by mycareertopia.com, 43% of respondents blame email for confusion and workplace resentment. This makes email the worst cause of confusion and miscommunication in the workplace.
Good, relevant subject lines depict the main point of an email, for instance:
Instead of “Mikogo“, use “Mikogo compatibility with Windows 10?”
Instead of “July“, use “Financial report for July 2015”
Instead of “Hi“, use “Product Inquiry – Mikogo for Small Business”
6. Set a time to respond to emails
In 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss recommends setting aside time slots to check your email. He has autoresponders indicating that he will check his business email every 7-10 days (given, his assistant deals with 90% of his work emails, leaving only those that absolutely require his personal attention to him) and his personal email, once a day. While Ferris’ system would seem extreme to you and me, a good practice would be to check email for 30 minutes in the morning, and again 30 minutes before leaving the office. When you are working outside of your email time slots, he recommends that you close your email inbox. Simply shut it down so you are not distracted by incoming emails which will take your attention away from your current work and break your flow.
Recommended Tool: Sometimes, you need to send an email at a specific time, knowing that you will receive a better response later. What to do when you need to remind your assistant to do something at a specific time? Boomerang allows you to schedule emails for a specific time using Gmail.
7. Use email to be more productive
If social media is an important element of your job function, you may find yourself inundated with notifications and the task of trying to manage social connections via email. Add to that the repeated daily visits to all the social media platforms, and you have no time for anything else. Some “productivity through email” tools include:
- NutshellMail, which gives you an overview of your social platforms in your inbox.
- Evercontact, which is a powerful, unique contact-list synchroniser.
- Xobni, which not only shows a user’s contact details (like Rapportive) but also updates your address book.
When it comes to asking a quick question that requires an immediate answer, a quick phone call or an online meeting are the best solutions as they eradicate confusion as well as back-and-forth exchanges. That being said, email isn’t going anywhere. Do you use any of these or other best practices? Leave a comment below with your email productivity tips.