3 ways to boost e-mail productivity in 2015

April 21, 2015, 9:35 AM UTC
Photograph by Nicholas Kamm — AFP/Getty Images

The time was 7:14 p.m. on Sunday. My kids were otherwise occupied, so I decided to get a jump on sending the emails on my to-do list. One was a note to Dan Calista, the CEO of Philadelphia-based healthcare consulting company Vynamic, asking to interview him about his company’s email policy. Called zzzMail, it asks that email not be sent after 10 p.m., before 6 a.m., or on weekends.

Oh the irony.

“You sent me a note on Sunday night,” he complained when we got on the phone on Tuesday. “If you’d sent it to me on Monday morning vs. Sunday night, could that have been fine?”

Somewhat surprised to have become the subject of this interview, I explained that I liked to reserve Monday mornings for writing. The upside of email is that it’s asynchronous; just because I sent my note on Sunday didn’t mean he needed to read it. But as he noted, everyone has mobile devices, so email isn’t asynchronous anymore. Vynamic is pioneering the notion that email should be treated like making a phone call. Sending it at a time that is convenient for you but not for the other person “feels kind of selfish,” Calista said (“Though your note was good news,” he added).

He’s not the only person rethinking email — both its timing and volume. “While email may be the most prevalent technology used in the workplace today, it is certainly not the most efficient,” says Jay Simons, president of Atlassian, the maker of several workplace collaboration products including HipChat and Confluence. It remains useful for many things. I connected with every person or organization in this article via email. But “the bottom line is that email is broken because it is being used for things it was not designed to do — real time communication and collaboration on work,” says Simons. People spend all day responding to the messages they receive, in no particular order of priority.

Organizations trying to change that have lit upon three solutions: move collaborative work to other places, change the way internal corporate information is shared, and declare email free times.

Take it elsewhere

The 30-message email chain of 8 cc-ed people is a gigantic headache, particularly for the boss who’s cc-ed on 5 different teams’ message chains. Shahed Islam, CEO of SJ Innovations (www.sjinnovation.com/), manages teams across multiple countries. He was getting 300-plus emails a day, and “I’d always get overwhelmed,” he says. “I have 100 emails and I don’t know the content.” He could have followed the productivity advice to check email only at certain times, but “we are human beings. When an email comes in, you will check it,” he says. With that many messages, he could spend all day in his inbox and still have no idea where projects stood.

So he moved internal conversations to Workboard.com, an app that allows teams to chat about specific projects, with easy ways to see what’s been addressed and what hasn’t. The problem with email, says Deidre Paknad, the CEO and co-founder of Workboard, is that actionable things are completely mixed in with the irrelevant and non-actionable. With a better system, instead of playing what Paknad calls “priority roulette” (answering whatever’s at the top of your inbox first), you can see what your co-workers actually care about.

Islam says his email volume has dropped 80-90 percent, and he can see the status of employees’ projects. “A lot of them used to cc me,” he says. “Now there’s no point.”

Other systems create similar drops in volume. Simons notes that a hotel chain franchise uses HIpChat to coordinate housekeeping operations. While a housekeeper could email the front desk and her colleagues that room 309 is now clean, if you’re in a hotel big enough to have a room 309, the volume would clearly be overwhelming. “Before Facebook, most of us communicated with our families and friends purely through email,” he says. “Hard to imagine us doing that today.” Yet most people still use email for business communication, which explains why a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that office workers spent 28 percent of their time reading and responding to email.

Change how news is shared

Team email chains aren’t the only problem. Mixed in with all that are various corporate communications, some of which are interesting but not that important (e.g. the cafeteria menu), and some of which are important, but time limited (email will be down for the next 20 minutes). “If you go on holiday for a week, you come back to a whole bunch of emails that you don’t know if they’re relevant or not,” says Phil Nunn, operations and channel development manager at SnapComms, a New Zealand-based internal communication software company. Plus, there’s evidence that at least half of internal corporate communication isn’t read. That’s fine if it’s the cafeteria menu, but not if it’s about required compliance training. “The problem is not the medium itself but the volume,” says Nunn. “If people only receive 5-10 messages a day, your message will get through. But we don’t.”

His company provides one solution to this. Organizations install the app on all devices. Then messages can be pushed through in various methods depending on importance. Less important messages could become screensavers. Urgent ones would be alerts that the person would have to click to show she’d read, but then they would disappear. Someone returning to work a day later would never need to know about the short email outage. By expiring messages when they’re no longer relevant, you can reduce volume by a lot.

Declare email free times

Calista explains zzzMail like this: “At Vynamic, our bold vision is to be the healthiest company in the world.” The general thought was that the healthiest company in the world would not check email at 1:30 a.m. “We all culturally embrace it,” Calista says, “and speak up if there is a violation.”

Of course, that’s one thing for internal communication. Vynamic is a consulting company. I was curious if clients would be berated for sending emails on Sunday like I was. “We try to have a healthy influence on our clients,” Calista says. They’re informed of the policy, and “it creates a dialogue,” though Vynamic will not refuse to work with a client who emails during odd times.

Most importantly, though, Calista points out that a policy against email is not a policy against communication. If there is something urgent, clients are told to text or call. Vynamic employees can text or call each other too. By setting that bar, though, “it helps you think about what’s truly important,” and whether it’s worth bothering that person right at that minute. Most of the time, it isn’t. So volume drops, and people hit Monday refreshed and ready to go.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of the forthcoming I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), a book based on time diaries of 1001 days in the lives of professional women and their families.

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