Email, once considered a panacea for business and personal communication, has become a useful tool but an occasional headache.
Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of the well-respected book Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, says the recent problems caused by email are triggered by "the increasing volume. It's gone from an urgent type of communication to something much less urgent." But Schwalbe says that people can implement certain strategies to use email more effectively, to manage it in a way that doesn't reduce productivity, and gain control of it.
Schwalbe says that email plays many roles and has become the "de facto way people communicate in global business." Email has replaced the business letter. It enables people to send memos and documents instantaneously, facilitates communicating with one's boss and colleagues, and serves as the easiest way to arrange business meetings.
But the ever-proliferating number of emails is reducing their effectiveness. "The volume of emails begets emails. The more you send, the more you answer, the more you get in return. It's Sisyphean," Schwalbe says, describing emails as a snowball getting bigger as it cascades down a mountain.
Several studies have shown that people who check emails at work lose 30 minutes of productivity due to distracted concentration. The only way for organizations to reduce the number of emails is to get together and to devise their own email rules. "These are best established department by department since no size fits all. Some departments, for example, may have legal obligations to respond," Schwalbe notes.
For example, some organizations have agreed not to send emails to thank people for doing their job. If payroll sends a paycheck to an employee, that effort shouldn't generate a thank-you email. But if payroll has to work late Friday night on a holiday weekend to provide a new employee with his or her first check-that might warrant an email. The point is organizations can set guidelines for limiting emails.
Moreover, many people feel a need to respond to every email to prove that they are diligently working and reviewing every message in their inbox. In many cases, answering every email serves as an escape from doing actual work that generates customer interaction or new business. Hence, setting up rules that require only answering email with a strong business case makes sense.
While most computers have spam detectors, Schwalbe says many people are now focusing on reducing bacn, a term that describes emails that have been requested but are never read. [See this site for a definition of the recently coined bacn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacn_(electronic).] "It's like spam but tastier. If you're not reading these emails, unsubscribe to them," he says.
Prioritizing emails serves as another way to reduce them. Many software programs now have priority alerts so the user can set up a system where emails from a manager or department head are highlighted, while others can be deleted or quickly reviewed.
Email proliferation creates a vicious cycle. If a person receives 100 emails, answers 10 of them, receives three new ones in response, and then answers those, emails multiply virally.
This is Schwalbe's advice:
Despite their proliferation, sending emails rather than communicating in person or on the telephone carries its own set of problems. "People forget that emails are toneless. On the phone, your voice can be enthusiastic or upset," Schwalbe says. People can tease on the phone, say they're mad in a joking way, but none of this nuance or subtlety can be easily conveyed in an email. Without that emotional undercurrent, people misinterpret emails, projecting their fears onto them, leading to confusion or anger. Emails trigger our "insecurities and encourage the lesser angels of our nature," he notes.
Schwalbe's advice is "Think before you send." If you're sending something controversial, special, or important, write it in a Word document, review it, and send it as an attachment rather than rushing it out willy-nilly.
Because emails can be distributed in the flick of an eye to millions, reviewing before sending it is sagacious. Furthermore, don't include something in an email that you wouldn't want to see mentioned in the front page of a newspaper. When in doubt, don't send.
Because emails are so instantaneous, many people get bent out of shape when a message is sent and is not responded to almost immediately. Schwalbe recommends that people acknowledge receipt of important emails quickly, noting that they are on a deadline and will respond in the next day or two.
Furthermore, he cautions about placing an "urgent" flag on every email. "You become like the boy who cried wolf and people will ignore your urgent message," he says.
In the future, Schwalbe envisions a "great convergence of emails." Currently, many people check emails via their cell phones, their voice mail, their work email, their home email, and their Facebook account-very cumbersome activities. He expects that one centralized facility for accessing emails is on the horizon. However, Schwalbe doesn't expect that spam filters will eliminate receiving emails from new people who have never sent a message before. "Part of business is reaching out to people you haven't dealt with before," he says.
"I don't see the volume of emails increasing exponentially. But, likely, more sophisticated software will help prioritize emails better in the future," he says. Hence, emails are here to stay and will still be plentiful, but controlling and minimizing them is also the wave of the future.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.