E-mail has become the most pervasive form of communication in the workplace.
In a recent study by US analysts Meta Group, 80 per cent of the business people
surveyed said that e-mail was more valuable to them than the telephone.
But such dependency also has a downside: poor inbox management can adversely
affect productivity, while the information overload it can cause has been
identified as a factor in workplace stress. A separate survey commissioned by
Veritas Software in July, which points to "alarming deficiencies" in
current e-mail system management, reveals that as little as 30 minutes without
e-mail access caused more than 68 per cent of users to become irate. Many find
the loss of e-mail more traumatic than events such as car accidents and
divorce. But following the steps below should help you break the bad habits
associated with e-mail, through better management and effective use of your
Where do I start?
There are both practical and psychological steps towards successfully
managing your mailbox. First, dispense with the notion that you have to
continually check your e-mail. Shut down the application and limit yourself to
checking it two or three times a day – preferably during periods of low productivity,
such as immediately after lunch.
Audit your inbox and don’t allow e-mails to build up. Delete all messages
that are more than a month old or are irrelevant to your job. Send back all
unsolicited mail and ask to be removed from circulation lists – use your
internet service provider’s ‘blocked senders’ list if necessary. Ask colleagues
not to ‘cc’ e-mails which are for information only. Access each message once,
and either reply, save, store or delete it.
Create folders and rules
Set up folders to better sort and store your e-mails. Ideally, these should
carry some kind of priority or action label such as ‘do today’, or ‘awaiting
information’, or be arranged around essential areas of work so you know exactly
where to find an e-mail you require. Sub-directories and colour coding can also
help keep messages in order.
The ‘Rules’ feature in Microsoft’s Outlook package is a powerful tool, and
can be used to deal with a variety of situations. It can automate tasks such as
directing incoming messages into related folders, and send customised automatic
acknowledgements – so you can even inform the sender of when to expect a reply
(Microsoft has advice tailored to HR professionals on how to do this on its
website). Be sure to empty the sent box and deleted-message folders regularly.
With the sheer volume of e-mail traffic, there is a heightened chance that
your important e-mail may be missed or deleted by the recipient, so it is
essential to write descriptive subject lines that signal the purpose of your
e-mail to grab their attention. Always use plain English, keep the message
brief and check for clarity before sending.
It may be an unwritten rule that e-mails should be responded to promptly,
but the recipient still needs sufficient time to consider their response –
particularly if it is an important decision. If you wish to know whether your
e-mail has been received, send it with a return receipt request, and you will
receive an alert once it has been opened.
Choosing the medium
Always select the most appropriate medium for your message: could you use
the telephone or meet with them face-to-face instead?
"If you are away from your desk, you cannot receive e-mails, so if it
is an urgent communication, it is the wrong medium," says Norman Wheatley,
programme director at people development company TMI. He advises using the
PURPOSE test (purpose, urgency, response, people, outcome, selection and
evaluation) before sending or using e-mail as a medium of communication.
Where can I get more info?
Managing in the E-mail Office, Monica Seeley, Gerard Hargreaves, Butterworth
Heinemann, £19.99, ISBN 0750656980
– Breaking the e-chain
Microsoft’s Office assistance section includes detailed guides on all aspects
of using Outlook, including advice tailored to HR professionals under ‘Replying
If you only do five things…
1 Access each message once and either
reply, save, store or delete it
2 Don’t continually check your e-mail
3 Set up folders to store e-mails
4 Use filtering methods to sort e-mails into folders
5 Don’t use your business e-mail to register for everything
Expert’s view Norman Wheatley on
Norman Wheatley is a programme director
at people development company TMI and Take90, a provider of bite-size
What does your inbox say about you
and your organisation?
I will answer this by quoting US writer Greg Anderson:
"The relationship we have with the world is largely determined by the
relation-ship we have with ourselves."
The way an inbox is managed is probably a reflection of the way
someone organises themselves in general. If a desk is messy, there are probably
a lot of unread e-mails in the inbox that haven’t been dealt with. The ideal,
as with the in-tray for paper, is that the inbox should be empty at the end of
the working day.
What mindset is required to keep
an inbox under control?
An amount of self-discipline is required if you are tempted to
look at your e-mails instead of doing an unpleasant task. Do the task first,
and look at them as a reward. Delete as many e-mails as you can. Ask yourself
two questions: ‘Do I need to keep this?’ If the answer is yes, the next
question is: ‘When do I need to respond to it?’ The answer is rarely ‘Now’, so
put it in one of the folders suggested above.
What role should HR play in
helping individuals to manage their e-mails?
HR can put together some best practice guidelines. Many
companies don’t have a policy or guidelines on what should and shouldn’t be
done with e-mails. An example is using meaningful headings in the subject box,
such as ‘A’ for ‘further action is required’, and ‘I’ for ‘information only’.
This can allow you to make a decision on whether you even need to read the
message now, if you know what it’s about. HR can also support the idea that
e-mails do not have to be looked at as soon as they arrive, and should never be
used for urgent communication. HR can help to set up work-group mailing lists
and review current mailing lists.
How should an individual go about
reducing their volume of e-mails?
Ask to be removed from mailing lists. Investigate the use of
bulletin boards. Ask not to be copied in to messages you don’t need to know
about. Look into systems that automatically delete messages from selected
senders – this will reduce the number of ‘spam’ e-mails you receive. You could
also consider delegating the task of sifting and answering your e-mails.