inbox with a ridiculous number of unread messages (10,652)
PHOTO: Gideon Tsang // CC BY SA 2.0

Pavlov, the behavioral scientist famous for classical conditioning, would be proud of the modern-day office worker.

Every time the tiny envelope icon appears in the corner of our screen, every time we hear the tell-tale ping announcing the arrival of each new email message, we stop what we’re doing and run to check our inbox. We open the email — at least the ones above the scroll line — and close it promising to deal with its contents later. Our inbox counts push into the hundreds, maybe thousands.

Those emails contain a mix of critical business records and private data, as well as informal conversations or sales pitches. Long email threads mean multiple copies of the same record with attachments that are managed — or not managed — by each recipient in the trail.

The Truth About Records Retention and Email 

Many people don’t realize their email is an official record and don’t apply good retention practices — classifying and storing it properly for the duration of its retention period. (All of those records in your email inbox. When was the last time you thought, "This email is a record, I need to label it and file it in our company repository for three years?")

Likely half of our emails are informal messages that are better handled through a phone call. But among that onslaught are official records, critical business documents that must be retained and are subject to recovery for legal or freedom of information requirements. Most of our records move or live in our email systems, the most common form of business communication, so email must be managed.

Related Article: Steps to Mitigate Email Risk

Email Wasn't Designed for Records Management

Email was designed to be a messaging tool — a transit route, not a records management holding station or collaboration meeting place. There are other, better ways.

  • Sharing culture: Records in email are not accessible by all authorized users. I often see situations where all the business’s orders are locked away in one manager’s email account, meaning other employees need to ask the manager whenever they want to see an order. A nimble, harmonized operation shares knowledge. That means a cultural shift from keeping work in personal devices and email, to a community “file cabinet” in a records or content management repository.
  • Secure: Records within or attached to email are not secure. Common, unencrypted emails are the cause of several major breaches recently, leaking millions of emails and causing millions of dollars of damage. Not only is the private content compromised, but breaches also harvest the metadata that travel with the email, revealing information about your recipient, network and your computer. There are safer technologies and practices to communicate personal information.
  • System of record: If you share an email and attachment with three teammates, there are now four copies of the email message and its attached document. Each recipient downloads the document and perhaps edits their copy. Not only does this clutter the system, it makes finding the right version time-consuming and stressful. I’ve talked to a number of clients who have used words such as “nightmare” and “hell” to describe scrambling for the right version of a customer quote or project design when a manager is away on vacation. And in extreme cases, clients can’t take their vacations due to the risk of chaos back at the office.
  • Accountable: If there were a legal discovery, all copies of a record, whether in email, file share, voice mail, banker’s box or hard drive, need to be retrieved and kept from alterations. Email that holds information about day-to-day operations must be easy to locate. Those that hold information of long-term value must be protected; those with transitory value must be disposed of when no longer needed.
  • Discretion: Email is so familiar, so easy to use, we use it for everything. But it’s worth asking if email is always the right tool. A good collaboration platform allows a team to engage in a forum without endless and repetitive email threads. If the exchange does not need to be recorded and managed, a phone call or team forum may be the better choice.

Related Article: Why Digital Transformation Efforts Should Start With Content Management

Cut Back on Unnecessary Emails, Manage the Ones You Have

Dealing with records in email (as well as in other systems) should be part of the records management program, which includes:

  • Retention policy and schedule: These need to be visible, presented in a user-friendly format and actionable.
  • Email use guidelines and policy: Training to help staff discern which emails are official records and if they have long-term significance. Which metadata must they capture? Who is responsible for retaining the official copy of an email? Who is authorized to access this email? Use email with links to documents that reside in a shared repository with appropriate access controls, not attachments. Helpful pointers such as:
    • Open email and deal with it once, rather than let the inbox bloat, hoping you will get back to it.
    • Set aside time each day to deal with email, to minimize distraction.
  • Process: Clear instructions for approving, storing and disposing of email.
  • A Records Manager: Someone who is responsible for monitoring program performance and is a contact for users if they have questions.
  • Records / content management repository: Structured information management service, that is findable, discoverable and backed up.
  • Collaboration forum: Provide a digital space where teams can post their exchanges without creating long email threads.

In one client’s content management project, the project leads are most nervous about the reaction to us turning off the ability to attach files to email. Some senior managers rely solely on email with attachments and on their personal hard drives. But with the average worker using up to half their day grappling with email, this is the time to drive a new culture — one where users are more conscious of their communication habits and of options for healthier email hygiene.