Reducing the burden of Email


Leadership, Learning / Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

I was at university when I was handed my first email account.  What am I supposed to do with this I thought?  Just as we can’t really recall a world before YouTube (12th Feb 2005!) or Facebook (February 2004! – I got married in 2004 for heaven’s sake) it seems very hard to imagine a time without email – I was studying my PGCE at Homerton, the University of Cambridge in 1999 when I had my first email address – on the aptly named HERMES system.

For as much as the news decries the downfall of email it still persists – it still pulls on our emotional fabric much as a snotty toddler does demanding our attention with another ta da.  Productivity gurus tell us to turn it off, only respond to email at certain times of the day.  Well, I manage staff absence and cover at school so I have no chance of bimbling over to outlook when the mood takes me, it smashes me in the face every morning at 6:45am.

New technologies are not the answer either.  We all like to think that we are ICT competant but the idea of a new system such as Slack or Facebook at work pose both a learning challenge to users and the real awareness that new tech is not the answer.  I think the solution to managing email is a different set of behaviours.

As part of our well-being review and the launch of our well-being programme we surveyed staff on the issues that cause them stress; email featured highly.  Check off the email naughties featured below that get on your nerves….

  1. Emails sent late at night or over the weekend that make you feel that you should a) read them and b) reply to them whilst pushing child number one on the swing
  2. Emails sent from colleagues that could be described only as novellas
  3. Emails with CAPITALS
  4. Emails which are shared with a large number of people and then someone hits the reply to all button…..repeatedly
  5. Staff selling things internally on email
  6. Being copied on an email that has absolutely nothing to do with you
  7. Being sent an email and then receiving a follow up asking why you haven’t replied yet

I couldn’t see an alternative to email but I could certainly see a solution to the problems listed above and it required a change in habits of staff.  Emails are not there to help us organise our to-do lists, it isn’t fair to send an email to someone and think you have passed on your responsibility for a task.  It isn’t right to send someone an email and expect an answer within the next 40 minutes.  When I raised this with the staff I used a football coaching analogy.  When coaching passing the ball will instill the awareness that the person passing the ball is responsible for the safe arrival of the pass and it should enable the receiver to play the next pass without difficulty….so it should be with email.  We need people to be kind with their email.

I drafted a new protocol for email.  I called it protocol because the scientist in me sees a protocol as a set of instructions to follow – a policy is not the same thing.  I shared this with staff before half term and we launched it fully on our return after the half term break.

Email Protocol – sharing version

I want to share it here with you as I think it has had a big difference in the volume of email being sent and the perception staff have on their email burden.  I asked the staff this week if the protocol had made a difference in the numbers of emails sent and the response was very positive.

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 21.45.26

We have seen quite a shift in habits with email and I am reassured to see that staff are still persisting with the BLUF.  Not because I am vain enough to think they are doing it because I asked them, they are doing it because they are exercising care with their email and their expectations of others.

I’d encourage you to try something similar in your organisations and see if it makes as much of a difference there as it has with our staff.

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