We are living in a digital environment and sometimes we get confused on when an email should be used and when other communication channels should be used. I would let you know how I do it and you would decide whether to use the same guidelines or not.
I have decided to write this post after I have spotted an email storm in my organization, which I had to stop by working together with my team leaders on creating a different email handling environment. We are not quite there, but we are certainly getting progress to the target. It will be clearer by the end of this post.
The rule of thumb we should all remember is that the more emails we send the more emails we get. Therefore, we should hold for a second before we start replying on an email and consider the trade-offs.
You Don’t Have to Reply It Right Now
Email is an offline communication tool which should not cause fragmentation to the work of the participants on the distribution list (if incoming email causes your work to be fragmented, read “desktop alerts are evil”). Therefore, email is effective in many cases, especially when people from different time zones are involved.
However, please consider using a more direct communication medium (e.g. phone, face-to-face) in the following cases:
- Back and forth discussion is being performed over the email thread. My rule of thumb: email thread that has more than 10 emails within 2 days should be stopped and move to another communication medium.
- You feel that the other side (distribution list) is being defensive or getting offended. We all have emotional inelegance (to some extent) to detect such cases. Trust your instincts on this. If there is a doubt, go for non-email medium.
- The topic is too complicated to explain by text. You know that when you are re-writing the same sentence 5 times in order to explain something.
- Our answer on the email is not urgent and we can discuss it online in our next weekly meeting with the person/forum. If we have a weekly meeting, let’s collect topics to discuss there and save the email traffic. It might be that after the weekly meeting, we would continue the email thread, but we have certainly saved some email traffic, as the email thread continues from a much more advanced point.
Control the Distribution List
Make sure the distribution list of the email is appropriate. Usually, it is too big. In such case, reduce it (read “the secret of BCC”).
Use Other Offline Tools
In some cases consider neglecting the email thread all together and communicate the information through other organizational tools. For example, my company is using JIRA for product problem tracking. Instead of discussing product problems over emails, we communicate through the JIRA system. This ensures that the distribution lists are small and focused, and only the relevant people are involved at every given time in the problem analysis process.
Avoid the Email Storm
Remember, this is a social methodology – the more people will use it in your network, the better the results are for everyone .
I have detected interesting phenomena in networks where people don’t use those guidelines. When the network is big (many email users) and the need for communication increases (e.g. at the “money time” of a project), an email storm begins.
It starts by a few managers that start sending urgency emails. The receivers don’t hold it and reply immediately, which cause more receivers to receive and reply, back and forth. The email traffic increases exponentially till it gets to some level that people can’t handle it anymore. At this point, people continue sending and replying on some emails, but they can’t really track all the emails – this is where things start falling apart.
Now the managers get angry and start another round of emails – this time, the emails are aggressive and offensive and the people are frustrated. The organization is being dragged into a circular loop that no one knows how to stop.
A simple way to detect an email storm is by analyzing your email traffic. It takes only 2 minutes. Type “received:yyyy-mm-dd” in your email search field and count the emails. Do that for the last 10-20 working days and put it on an excel graph.
See below how I have detected the email storm in my organization – straight forward and clear to detect, right?
Once I have detected it, I have gathered all my leaders and we have talked about it for 20 minutes. After a few days, I have already detected an improvement – the storm was getting calmer…