When Harvard Business Review released a podcast titled "Email: Is It Time to Just Ban It?" last month, it joined a long line of companies and periodicals calling for the end of email.
The Atlantic took a slightly less drastic approach in a recent article, but still argued in favor of a complete overhaul of email etiquette and culture.
While these organizations may appear to be proposing something radical, they have good reason for doing so.
Survey Says: Email Can Be Bad For Your Health
Statistics and studies demonstrating the detrimental effects of email are piling up.
Psychologists have even called email a “toxic source of stress.”
Some organizations have found unique ways to combat the deleterious aspects of email. The Huffington Post, inspired by a similar action at German car manufacturer Daimler Benz, recently introduced a tool that automatically deletes all of an employee’s incoming emails while they are on vacation.
While this measure may alleviate employee stress, it also likely makes them miss communications and get even further behind on work. Aside from hurting productivity, this will cause as much stress as it relieved in the first place.
So how do companies overcome the catch 22 that email is hurting both employee health and productivity, yet doing away with it entirely can be equally harmful?
4 Tips for Healthy Communication
During my decade plus in the intranet business, I've learned some lessons on healthy communication. As I’ve seen in my own organization, these lessons carry powerful implications, not just for intranets, but for email as well.
1. Communicate company news in a timely manner
This lesson is especially applicable for senior management and executives: don’t sit on company news, big or small.
Even if you have to tell employees that you’ll keep them updated as a situation unfolds, timely communication engenders trust. Trust, in turn, lowers stress and keeps employees working productively, rather than sending numerous follow up questions and trying to make sense of their situation among themselves.
With 82 percent of employees not trusting their bosses to tell the truth, this kind of transparency is more important than ever.
2. Anticipate questions ahead of time (and clarify expectations)
According to a recent study, the number one cause of stress in the workplace is unclear expectations from managers.
Number two? Confusion or conflict among coworkers or departments.
Between those top two slots, a full 50 percent of respondents cited confusion in one form or another as the top cause of their work related stress.
The responsibilities of the communicator are to anticipate this and to plan accordingly. For emails to be useful, they need to combat this ambiguity, with the composer asking themselves what questions the recipient will have before hitting “send.” What information still isn’t included? How might this email affect previous communications or workers’ day to day routines, and how can that be addressed?
Leaving these important questions unanswered leads to stress and a flood of follow up emails. Providing sufficient information in the first place saves precious time and nerves.
3. Include only the necessary information
This may seem contradictory to the last point, but in fact it’s not.
Precision, clarity and fullness are all good qualities in an email communication. Excessiveness is not.
Oversharing or including unnecessary information increases the chance for confusion. Don’t make anyone dig for the facts they need, and don’t inundate them with red herrings.
When writing an email, it’s best to outline it as one would a longer written piece, rather than sending something off in haste. The extra effort up front will go far in minimizing the number of follow up emails sent down the line.
4. Replace email when you can
Unsurprisingly, as the CEO of an intranet software company, this is my favorite point. Intranets, and many other project management and social working tools, can replace many of the functions email serves — without the negative consequences Huffington Post and Daimler Benz may have inflicted on themselves.
In fact, a McKinsey study has shown that using social technology at work has the potential to raise productivity by 20-25 percent.
Much of what companies use emails for is assigning and collaborating on tasks. A plethora of new technologies have been introduced in the last few years to specifically address these functions, many of them wildly effective.
Take, for instance a manager who wishes to see the to do list of one of their team members. That manager can send the team member an email, and at best the employee has to then spend time compiling a list and sending it back. At worst, a chain of follow up emails and a bout of anxiety ensue.
Using a task management app, the manager could have simply looked at the team member’s task list and avoided the whole kerfuffle. Of course, this still doesn’t eliminate the need for email entirely, but it cuts out a lot of the time spent emailing.
Don't Turn Your Inbox Into Your Crutch
Email addiction hurts employees’ mental health, along with their productivity. That being said, don’t give it more power than it deserves. These tips should help you use email responsibly, a part of which is moving whatever functions possible to other tools.
The next step is in realizing that good communication takes effort — effort to design each communication to serve it’s intended purpose, and effort in choosing the right technology to deliver communications.
By reducing reliance on email as the singular tool for communication and collaboration, we can not only reduce stress but drive productivity, improve employee engagement and enhance transparency within our organizations.
Title image by Tim Gouw