Check Your Work Email Every 45 Minutes (and Other Business Email Tips)
When I was a child, fewer occurrences made me happier than receiving postal mail, as I thought, even though the contents were usually birthday cards or Highlights magazines, that I was extra special. That air of importance continued throughout my adolescence and increased when I hit young adulthood, as electronic correspondence came to complement and then to supplant traditional means to exchange information. Now tasked with earning my keep as a 39-year-old, I, like millions of other Americans and heaven-knows-how-many global workers, rely constantly on email to connect to colleagues, field-specific bigwigs and other contemporaries all in the name of fostering relationships between my company and its peers (and earning a few bucks).
No matter our job descriptions, we all undoubtedly find ourselves reading and sending (perhaps even dreading) work email. But should the inbox and outbox dominate our days? What is the proper course for handling any inundation of messages? Here are five tips—a mix of suggestions for employees and organizations—compiled from Kingston Business School's extensive report on work email.
1. Feel no pressure to check work email constantly
As the head of Wellbeing at Work: Kingston Research Group in London, Emma Russell concerns herself with “attracting and developing research into key work and organizational issues that impact on the well-being of people at work.” With email registering as a chief component of many workplace engagements, people can feel intense pressure to be constant monitors of messages. But she and her peers, by conducting two phases of research, gathered immense amounts of feedback, primarily through their Systematic Literature Review and “semi-structured, sense-checking interviews with 12 working adults,” to offer a different course of action. Through their exhaustive analysis, they developed a "Top 10 Learning Points for Improving Email Strategies," with the first being a rebuke of the must-read-now phenomenon that plagues many hires.
“Research shows that regularly checking and dealing with email throughout the working day can help people feel more in control, allow for effective prioritization and prevent feelings of email overload,” they offer as their chief conclusion under the “Process and clear email whenever it is checked” header. Since “regularly” is definitely relative, they add that “Checking, and then deleting, filing or actioning, email every 45 minutes is recommended to tangibly reduce stress and improve efficiency.” Is this your strategy? Do you agree with the time-frame, or do you prefer a must shorter or lengthier block of time?
2. Respect work/life boundaries
Yes, places of employment provide workers with schedules, but many of us often feel compelled, even persuaded, to inspect our work email systems beyond our office stints. While doing so might make us feel as if we are excelling or perhaps impressing higher-ups, Russell et al suggest that our work and personal lives must not mix too often. Because of that, they provided the following example scenario:
Use ‘Delay Send’ function when sending email out-of-hours
Ricky is a working parent with a full-time job. He has to work flexibly in order to juggle the demands of his job with family life, which means that occasionally he needs to catch up with email in the evening. For Ricky, this is a good time to reply to colleagues and prepare his team for what will be happening the next day. Research shows that receiving work email out-of-hours can cause feelings of stress for workers.
Learning point: If people like Ricky need to work flexibly out of hours, we suggest that they utilize the "delay send" function so that email can be cleared from their inboxes but is not delivered to email partners (especially subordinates) until the next working day. This means that work-life boundaries are clarified and respected.
3. Be mindful of personal email strategies
Having studied English literature extensively in college, I have always admired how those who inhabit “the Sceptered Isle,” to quote Shakespeare, express themselves. Through this next suggestion, Russell et al confirm how wonderful certain fifty-cent words can sound when we lump them together:
Example Scenario: Geoff has been using email at work for years. He doesn’t really think about his ‘strategies’ anymore. He seems to be getting by just fine by bashing off replies as soon as email comes in (often via his smartphone) and then filing messages away in one of his (over 100) inbox project folders. Most of what he does with email is pretty habitual these days; he doesn’t have the time to think about doing it any other way. Yet, research suggests that email-use can perpetuate a fallacy of freedom and efficacy, when in fact people have become addictive or reactive email users; effectively the "purpose" for using email has gone. Whilst research also attests that developing shortcut and automated strategies can create efficiencies in behaviors, we acknowledge that overuse of habitual strategies can prevent reflection and exacerbate excessive use.
Learning point: Encouraging all workers to reconsider how purposeful their email strategies are (with managers, coaches or trainers) is a key suggestion.
4. Trust the process
About a quarter through the review, Russell tackles the issue of trust and includes these findings from communications experts.
“Because email is so convenient there is a danger that workers can end up ‘hiding behind’ email; using it to avoid sensitive or controversial conversations, or even to avoid personalized face-to-face contact (Pignata et al., 2015; Ramsay and Renaud, 2012). Hiding behind email in this way creates a lack of respect and regard for the initiator and can diminish trust (Fallows, 2002).” Finding support for those claims, she and her team offer this assessment from a worker who participated in their study.
“I think some people will use email as an avoidance of having a direct conversation and will quite merrily tick that off their task list, job done, when all they've done is sent an email. I see quite a lot of that happening.”
Both elements lead her and the others to present this advice to organizations:
Develop ‘email etiquette’ guidance
Example Scenario: Phil does all of his communication by email, so that he has a record of everything anyone has promised or told him they will do. He saves and files any incoming email about team projects, to keep track of who is asking him to do what, and he makes sure he cc’s his boss on all of his project correspondence (especially when taking a team member to task for failing to deliver). Research shows that email exchanges can easily be misinterpreted, especially when email partners do not trust each other. Using email to ‘cover one’s back’ can exacerbate a lack of trust and contribute to breakdowns in communication.
Learning point: Developing email guidance—e.g. on when to use ‘cc’, how to phrase email, on when other communication tools (including face-to-face) should be adopted—is one way that organizations can remove some of the uncertainties that often accompany a culture of mistrust.
5. Never slack on support
It can be tempting to feel we have everything covered with regards to work email, as many of us have dealt with it for substantial periods of time. However, though we may fully grasp the concepts of sending, receiving, setting up meetings, sharing documents, downloading items and other tasks, such mastery does not mean we will never find ourselves burdened. When we do not have the answers, or we have them but cannot provide them when certain parties might want them, Russell and her crew hold that we need support from our companies, which they detail through two scenarios.
Support workers during periods of high workload
Example Scenario: Now and again Petrov has to close off his email, and all other distractions, to write a report under a tight deadline. He dreads checking in on his email after such periods and it can take weeks to clear the tasks that have accumulated. Learning point: As email is used as a tool for communicating work tasks, organizations need to allow workers to put contingencies in place to pass on or put off tasks sent by email when other work tasks need to take priority. For example, using "out-of-office" systems to manage expectations or provide alternative sources of help, setting up ‘rules’ to automatically forward certain email to colleagues, or using team based inboxes, can all help workers ensure that email is used flexibly and purposefully in line with other work demands.
And the second:
Provide email training
Example Scenario: Holly has been working in an office for five years since she left school. At no point has she ever received email training. She knows she probably isn’t managing her email very well, but as everyone seems to use email in a different way, it is hard to know who to ask for advice on how to improve. Studies have shown that strategies can change as a result of sustained training. Training that involves optimizing the functionality of email systems, and/or learning better email management strategies are especially successful. When workers complete a training program with a plan that enables them to actively put their new strategies into practice, it helps them to feel more competent and in control of their email. When email self-efficacy improves, the greatest benefits are observed. Learning point: We recommend that organizations offer explicit and sustained email training to workers that focus not only on how to improve email strategies, but also on how to enhance email self-efficacy.
Which email policies have you found work best within your organizations? Do you regularly revisit them, or do they run so smoothly so as not to merit many alterations? Let us know!
Check out the full report here for more information.