With COVID-19 changing how many are now working outside their traditional offices, we rely more and more on technology like online meetings and email to communicate with coworkers. Often, our reliance on these types of tools has highlighted email limitations as a default form of communication. The fact that email is so familiar and easy to use can fog our judgement about how we’re using it. Have you ever received an email that read like a rant, or sent an essential email without any response, only to learn later someone was offended? In many instances, we’re wise to critically evaluate the message we’ve written before hitting the “send” button. After all, one of email’s main advantages is that it provides the opportunity to edit our words before sending them to someone else.
In our work dealing with workplace conflicts, we have the privilege to observe first-hand email strategies that support or sink working relationships. Here’s a partial list of dos and don’ts that promote email’s best potential and positive working relationships:
DO THIS WHEN EMAILING COWORKERS
- Keep it short. Writing a lot of words might feel good to get out, but how are you showing respect for your colleagues’ time as they open a full inbox? If you must elaborate, place your full thoughts in a clear document attached to the email and highlight only the critical aspects in the email body.
- Make email recipients appreciate you. Only cc or bcc those mentioned in the email or who are critical to the information, not a full list of everyone who you think might be interested. Make sure the subject is concise and directly captures what the email is about, making it easy for the recipient to find what’s important.
- Take a few minutes to review your full message before you hit send. Is your intent clear? How would you feel if you received it? Consider your reaction if your message was viewed by someone other than the intended recipient. If the very thought makes you cringe, best not to send it.
- Evaluate whether email is the best way to communicate the information. One helpful guideline: match the nature of the information with the method of delivery. If your message’s content is sensitive or emotional, initiate a phone call or ‘face-to-face’ Zoom or FaceTime discussion instead, where non-verbals such as tone and expression enhance the meaning and intent of your message. If the matter at hand is complex or confidential in nature, provide a letter containing the appropriate information.
- Email a “confirmation memo” after face-to-face video meetings if you or another party wants a written record of your interactions. Summarize agreed-upon outcomes rather than the details of your discussion.
- Consider the timing of your email. A message sent late Friday afternoon to a recipient attempting to wrap up other tasks may prove unproductive, not to mention irritating. As David Shipley and Will Schwalbe note in their book Send, email is often an interruption that takes people off task for up to half an hour. If you are aware that someone feels the heat of a looming deadline, consider delaying your message for when it won’t be competing with other priorities.
- Familiarize yourself with your organization’s email policy. Keep in mind that deleted emails may be backed up on an internal server, so even when you remove it from your computer, it is likely still accessible as part of your organization’s archives. Company emails are generally just that – property of the company.
DON’T DO THIS WHEN EMAILING COWORKERS
- …immediately respond to an email that has caused you to feel frustrated or angry. Take time to calm yourself and evaluate your assumptions before writing. The sender may be unaware of their message’s potential negative impact. In such an instance, a follow-up phone call may be useful to ensure clarity and to check your own perceptions.
- …include individuals in email discussions that need not be. Share relevant information on a need-to-know basis. Likewise, do not fill your colleagues’ inboxes with trivial or inconsequential information that will only serve to rob them of time. Avoid using the bcc field as any of those recipients might accidentally reply all, exposing themselves to the intended recipient (forward the sent email if you must).
- …attempt to work out conflicts using email. More often than not, you risk adding fuel to the fire. Writing does not provide the benefits of non-verbal cues, nor in-the-moment opportunities to clarify meaning, both essential elements for resolving emotional issues. Use email to set a time to discuss and to confirm outcomes of discussions where helpful.
- …rely on email to apologize to someone if you have made an unfortunate email blunder that has caused offence or distress. Take responsibility for your mistake by apologizing over the phone or in-person to ensure the other party knows you are genuinely concerned about the impact for them. Email apologies regarding less weighty exchanges may be fine, but not for those where emotion is heightened.
- … write any offensive, defamatory, or other questionable personal remarks in your message. If you are unsure how a comment or joke will be received, don’t send it. Remember you can’t be there to see the reaction, nor can you delete your words in retrospect!
As we enter this next phase of working from home, as offices around the province close, take a moment to review our series on Communicating in a Virtual World. Our blog covers virtual meetings, social media and more tips on communicating effectively over email.