This post originally appeared on the 15Five blog.
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Email is a huge time and efficiency suck. It’s a perpetuating cycle of call and response, a vortex of distraction and a black hole for productivity. But there is a way out…
In the movie Every Day’s a Holiday, Mae West famously remarked, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” That’s how I feel about email. The problem is that it’s not a holiday. It’s Monday morning and I won’t have my first martini until lunch.
Okay, even if you’re not trading emailing for martinis during the day, who is guilty of hopping right back into their inboxes after work? Checking your email on your smartphone en route to dinner? Sound familiar? Just stop. The benefits are clear. Communicating smarter saves time, increases efficiency, and makes work more enjoyable for everyone.
It all starts with process
Email is just one of the tools at our disposal. Organizations can tailor communication based on different needs by using the myriad technologies available. For example, no one is going to read your 4,000 word email, no matter how pretty your embedded charts look.
Instead, create a wiki or a white paper to disseminate important information that will be repeatedly accessed by your team. Then use Dropbox or Google Drive to make it available for future reference.
Likewise, high-level conversations about team progress, performance, and satisfaction should not be circulated via email. That method is not just annoying and frustrating, it taxes the resources of the entire company. Important stuff inevitably falls through cracks. There is a need to structure a weekly process for stakeholders to communicate these essential focal points.
I know this because of the overwhelming response to an internal question from our early days. (Yes, we at 15Five use our own reporting system every week.) We were asked for “one suggestion to improve your role, team, or the organization.” Almost every answer involved streamlining how we communicate.
The consensus: Keep the most important conversations out of email. Period. Otherwise, you have to juggle multiple team members, all of whom will respond at different times. And if an important response actually does surface, it will be lost in a sea of potentially pointless drivel. Try getting your important tasks completed when ten different people are blowing up your inbox all day long.
Loop me out, damnit!
Have you ever taken a few days off work only to return to hundreds of emails in your inbox? After filtering out the crap and repeatedly asking, “Why am I cc’d on this?”, you are left with a mere handful of useful and important conversations.
Increase efficiency by creating a hierarchy of people who will own certain tasks while others report directly to them. The people who are working together at one level can communicate among themselves, and then pass the information up as needed. You can schedule a quick meeting to define the detailed structure and tailor the process to your team’s specific needs.
Put your email where your mouth is
When used wisely, verbal communication can be far more efficient:
1. Schedule a one-on-one. Anticipate the need for a longer conversation based on how individual members of your team process things. Several short meetings in the conference room can save the team from hours of drowning in group threads.
2. Gather your key players. Are you ideating and iterating? While reading 312 emails from a 12-member team sounds like a really valuable use of your time, it is far better to meet and instantly hash-out suggestions and responses. If your team is spread out or works remotely, meetings can have a secondary benefit of building connections and overall employee satisfaction.
3. Face Time. Our entire team checks in for 15 minutes every morning via Google Hangout. Two or three members of the team will stay on after the rest of the group logs off. Those few minutes of face-to-face contact make the rest of the day flow so much better.
4. Get on a call. I usually reserve emailing for situations where I can clearly state a need to a consultant or team-member, and I don’t anticipate a response other than “Got it” or “I’ll have that for you by EOD.”
Once my list of things to discuss hits three or more, I change strategies and resolve the issue with a five-minute call. Sure, there is sometimes resistance. The person on the line is wondering why I just called rather than emailing them first to schedule the call. I explain that five minutes right now will save an hour of typing back and forth throughout the day.
Email can be a valuable tool when we take the time to do it properly. So, before furiously tapping your fingers and hitting send, take three minutes to review. Does it make sense? Does the recipient have enough information to proceed? Can I remove any recipients?
If the email is a reply, make sure you have adequately responded to the original questions, because the alternative is getting stuck in an endless wormhole of confused responses and nervous requests for more information.
How do you keep the communication channels flowing smoothly? Tell us in the comments section below.