Using email to get the job done

My working day is centred around email. I use email for client conversations, project quotes, project delivery, and invoicing. Even though I like to meet clients face-to-face whenever possible, it’s not uncommon for me to conduct entire projects by email.

Email makes work communication easier and faster. Because of its asynchronicity, I no longer need to worry about telephone tag and missed calls. I also spend a lot less time travelling to meetings. I can read and respond to email when it suits me. In return, my clients can read and respond when it best suits them.

But email isn’t without its problems:

  • As a sender of email, I often don’t know whether my message has been received and whether it’s been understood as I’d intended.
  • As a sender of email, I often find myself waiting for a response that never seems to arrive, leaving me unsure about when to follow up (without becoming a pest). While I wait for a response, I wonder whether I have become too impatient, caused offence, sent the message to the wrong person, been lost in the receiver’s inbox, or done something dumb. Sometimes I wonder whether my recipient is ill or has left their job. When I work with service providers, I find that email makes it more difficult to find a balance between efficiency and nuisance (because I don’t know whether the service provider has received and is acting on my message, and I don’t know how long to wait).
  • As a receiver of email, I often find the responses I receive don’t answer the questions I originally asked.
  • As a receiver of email, I often lose or misplace content in the constant flow of messages coming to my multiple email addresses. It’s not uncommon for me to mis-read a message in my hurry to get the work done. It’s also not uncommon for me to fail to find a message that I know I’ve received.
  • When I talk to people about email, they often say they’re overwhelmed by its volume and the pressure to respond immediately.

So, with that those problems in the background, here are 7 thoughts about how I try to approach my workplace email.

1. Reply to confirm the message is received

When I receive a message, I try to respond in a reasonable timeframe, even if only to acknowledge receipt. The person who sent the message can never be completely confident I received it if I don’t take the time to reply.

2. Provide a timeline for a thoughtful response

If I receive an email that asks me to do something I can’t do immediately, I try to respond with a timeframe explaining when the task will be done. I don’t drop existing work to respond to new requests. But I think the person sending the message deserves an acknowledgement and a timeline. If relevant, I put my promised timeline into my diary.

3. Reply in a timeframe that’s reasonable for the industry/project

Like most people, I don’t need to respond immediately to my email. I check my email two or three times a day, and handle it in batches. But I believe it’s important to respond in a timeframe that suits the expectations of the sender/industry/workplace. For my work, I’ve decided that a reasonable timeframe is 24 hours. One of my difficulties with service providers is that I don’t understand what a ‘reasonable timeframe’ is for them (but, if you’re interested, I think that 4 weeks of silence is way too long).

4. Take enough time

Email is a fast form of communication and it’s tempting to respond quickly with little thought for either the content or writing style. Email may be less formal than a letter, but it’s now the standard form of business communication. As an email writer, I try to take enough time to think about the message and what it will be like for the person receiving it.

5. Put the most important point first

People read email quickly, and they often don’t read right to the end of the message. For this reason, I try to always start with the most important point (the request or question), then explain the background later.

6. Structure points for easy understanding

People read email quickly, so it’s easy for them to miss information – particularly if the message includes multiple points or complex sentences. For this reason, I try to:

  • Let the reader know how many questions/points are included
  • Use numbered bullet points
  • Use short paragraphs and short sentences
  • Put the most important point first in every paragraph and every sentence.

7. Worry about the subject line

Emails need great subject lines that encourage readers to open and read the message. When I check my incoming emails, I scan the inbox with my hand over the ‘delete’ key. I delete without opening any message that either wasn’t sent by someone I know or doesn’t have a useful subject line. When I write emails, particularly to people who don’t know why I’m emailing them, I try hard to create a subject line that will encourage them to open.