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3 things that leaders need to do to improve email productivity in the workplace

Most companies don’t have an email policy. That’s a problem for productivity, argues the RescueTime CEO.

3 things that leaders need to do to improve email productivity in the workplace
[Photo: NiseriN/iStock]

Email might be a critical tool in the workplace, but it’s also one of the biggest time-wasters. Workers spend 28% of the average workweek reading and answering emails, according to research conducted by McKinsey. At RescueTime, our own data shows that two-thirds of people check email at least once per hour. Nearly 30% of people admit to having their inbox open all the time and checking it regularly.

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While email has been in use for nearly 50 years, there is no definitive guidebook for users. RescueTime spoke with more than 700 professionals about how email is used in the workplace. In our study, we learned about the most significant email conflicts and three key areas that companies can work on to turn email into a productivity tool, rather than a hindrance in the workplace.

Many workplaces don’t have email etiquette and policies in place

No one would hand over a car and expect a new driver to be able to drive right away. That person needs to learn the rules of the road and pass a test to prove competency. But for some reason, when it comes to email, companies assume that workers will know what to do. As a result, every employee ends up operating by a set of different rules, which can lead to conflict and disagreement. Companies rarely have structured policies or guidance about email, let alone a standardized way to measure competency.

When we asked about email uses, the data demonstrated that companies could ease the chaos and conflicts by establishing ground rules in three key areas.

1. Guide workers on when to use email

Companies assume that workers know when to use email. However, with more tools than ever available, email may not always be the best vehicle for communicating. For example, email may be the preferred tool for external communications or longer-form communications. But tools such as Yammer, Slack, and Skype may be better suited for internal communications and collaboration. These tools allow people to get quick answers and solicit input in real time without cluttering up the email inbox. If an email requires a lot of back and forth, Skype or even a phone call may be more efficient than several emails. Providing the best use case for email ensures that everyone on the team uses the right tool for the job.

2. Set a standard response time

Companies routinely set external expectations about response time, but this is helpful to do internally as well. How quickly are employees expected to respond to an email? In our study, 40% of people said you should reply within a day, while 25% said responses should be within an hour. Without a standard that guides your entire team, you are setting your workers up for conflict and frustration. A documented policy that governs response times will help people prioritize how they send and respond to communications. You’ll also probably find that your workers are less distracted—because they’re not constantly checking their email.

Don’t forget to be explicit when it comes to after-hours emails. Sixty percent of people say they check email before or after work hours. France and Germany have laws governing working after hours, and the U.S. has already seen a “right to disconnect” bill. Companies can cultivate healthier workplaces by proactively addressing the issue. Lead from the top by putting an end to after-hours emails. If you choose to work after hours, use an email scheduling tool so that the receiver will see it during the day.

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3. Instruct on who to include in email messages

Chances are, you have been cc’d on an email message at some point during your professional lives. Often these are long threads that require time and effort to figure out what happened, and what we need to do (if anything). When we asked about this practice, close to 50% of people we spoke to said they don’t respond to emails not directly addressed to them. The other half say it depends (meaning they have to spend time reading them first). According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, we lose 27 minutes a day just checking if emails require an action. This is a waste of time, time that we could have spent doing critical work.

Companies should have a guide on how to address email and who should be included. For example, there are times that people need to be informed but aren’t involved. In those cases, it may be more efficient to send a separate quick recap email that says they don’t need to take action. Even better, you can preserve essential information outside of email—like a company intranet—so that only those who need to see it can access the information.

By setting a few fundamental guidelines that govern email use, you can make email a great communication tool in the workplace. It’s also a way to take back control of email. That way, it becomes a tool that serves you and your employees, not a source of never-ending stress and anxiety.


Robby Macdonell is CEO of RescueTime, a company that helps people and organizations get more meaningful work done every day.

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