This year (2021) marks 50 years since the first email was sent. Yeah it is that old! However, wide usage of email in the general workplace has perhaps been only in the last 25 or so years. There are many effective ways to communicate in the workplace such as face-to-face meeting, video conference, phone call, audio conference, paper letter or memo, text, social media, various messaging platforms, and good old email. We all know that email has a special place. The biggest benefits are that email is asynchronous, nearly instantaneous, easy to access, searchable, and has potential to be personal. Other benefits are realized by using hypertext to refer to websites, adding attachments in any format, and creating embedded emojis.
There are numerous wonderful advancements of emails especially in the last 25 years (some of us may remember back in the day email was just done using ascii). However, three developments have been detrimental to getting email responses. The first is when Google introduced gmail and said that we never have to delete any more emails. That resulted in many of us not staying organized with our email inboxes. In particular, when students come to college after mostly using emails for fun, they struggle as universities bombard them with a lot of important stuff through email. When our inboxes have more than 1000 messages, there is very little hope to clean it up. So, gmail is ideal for storage and retrieval, not for responses.
The second problem that affects getting responses is the way the reply feature is set up nowadays. Back in the day those of us that used pine or elm (or for that matter any other email platform) will remember the “>>” symbol in front of each line of the sender which was placed after an indentation. That went away and there was a vertical line for some time, which was reasonable especially in multi-threaded messages. Now there is nothing. So we have to manually insert a response in a different color, which is not bad, but a change of color is a lot of extra effort. The main concern is that the email platform has stopped suggesting that we need to respond to the things the sender has asked.
Third issue that negatively impact getting responses is that we get our emails on our cell phones. Unless it is a short response or a quick forward, typically the phone is not conducive for responding to emails. The main problem is that when we go back to our computers, the mail does not appear as unread. So when there are a lot of emails in the inbox, we tend to miss responding to some emails that we read on the phone. A good option is to not get work-related emails on our phones. If there is a need, we can always have an email forwarded to our personal addresses on the phone for easy access, but that should not be all emails. It also brings about a lot of mental peace to not have work emails on our phones.
Before getting to the topic of effective ways to get responses to our emails, one aspect that is important in the workplace is to have a conversation at least between a supervisor and a subordinate regarding email. In particular, some ground rules for emails are good to discuss. For example, what is the service level for response (within 24 hours or 48 hours)? Should emails be lengthy, flowery, and include pleasantries? What should be discussed over email and what would be through face-to-face or texts? Are responses expected to every email that is sent with a question? Who responds to which email? Setting up a protocol for managing emails would be extremely useful for any group.
While there are many articles online on email etiquette, here are some thoughts for improving responsiveness to emails.
Sender: Be explicit on who should respond
Many times we send emails to multiple people on the “To:” line and it becomes unclear who should respond. One way to get around that is to have only one person to whom the email is addressed. That person is responsible to reply. Also, it would help to explicitly ask questions, instead of expecting comments or thoughts. There may be situations when different people can do a better job addressing different questions, then we can be more specific about who gets to answer what. Also a gentle follow up and a careful check to see if they responded with “Reply All” is useful.
Receiver: Categorize emails
As a receiver, it would help to be a bit organized with emails. For one, fix certain times of the day or days of the week for email responses. Also some emails do not need a response, and they can either be filed away or deleted. Then we can leave ones that need a response in the inbox itself and get the necessary information before responding. It may also help to file some emails away in folders and set a reminder to respond. These are usually either important emails or those that take too long to respond such as request to review something.
On the Cc: Wait and prompt if no response
In workplaces, the Cc emails are understandably tricky, but very common. Most of the time it would be just for our information. In those cases it would be clearly safe to stash away in the right folder. But sometimes we may want to wait and see if the people on the “To:” line respond, especially if it is a critical item. It could be that they missed “Reply All”, then it would be good to send a gentle reminder. Understanding people’s email responding patterns greatly helps managing communication. If we are new to an organization, it would be better to first understand the response patterns and then act.