As millions of people navigate workdays that blend video meetings, homeschooling, pet sitting, and cooking, setting up boundaries is critical. Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic requires flexibility. Moreover, after working from home with my company, I realized many factors are out of our hands.
However, there is one thing we can control: how we email.
As leaders, managers, and entrepreneurs, we need to stop sending emails outside of work hours. Even if you don’t expect a quick reply, your employees are desperate to be good team players, particularly right now. They want to prove their worth. And it’s easy to think, “It’s just a quick email. No big deal.” But the reality is, an email is never just an email.
Beyond the cognitive disruption of context switching, an email is a request disguised as a message. Every note requires a corresponding action, even if it’s simply reading and absorbing the content.
Email is also notoriously time-consuming. An often-cited 2016 study found that the average professional spends 4.1 hours each day replying to work emails. Even if you don’t log half a workday rooting around your inbox, email can occupy a disproportionate chunk of mental real estate.
As marketing strategist Dorie Clark writes in Harvard Business Review, “regardless of how much time I spent [on email], it seemed like I was always stressed about the unanswered messages in my inbox.”
Clark is not alone in feeling this way. A phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect points to why unread email can haunt our days and even our dreams. In the late 1920s, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered that incomplete tasks create psychic tension. They can lead us to ruminate on an unfinished activity, regardless of its relative importance, until it’s resolved. Her research also explains why cliffhangers at the end of TV shows compel us to hit “next episode” instead of going to sleep. The habits represent our brain’s longing to close open loops.
As a leader, you are in charge of guiding your company culture, from top to bottom. Even in flat organizations, founders and longtime team members hold inordinate influence. When life and work are jumbled together at home, you can help your employees and leadership team and set boundaries to keep them focused, calm, and productive.
Here are three ways to encourage a healthy email culture, even when everyone’s schedule feels turned upside down.
Get right to the point
If every email can be thought of as a request, make an effort to clarify what you want. This approach is particularly important for emails that address a large team or the whole company.
Use concise language and end with a list of action items. If the request doesn’t apply to a recipient, simply exclude them. We all receive far too many “FYI” emails that clog our inboxes. If someone needs to be included, you can always bring them back into the thread later.
As the CEO, I’m copied on a lot of unnecessary emails. I know employees mean well; they’re trying to keep me in the loop, and they worry I’ll be offended if I’m left off the list. However, excluding me from extraneous emails shows me my team respects my time, they’re empowered to work autonomously, and they can move projects forward without constant validation.
Schedule your send time
After working from home for several weeks, all bets are off for your work schedule in a global pandemic. You might need to tackle your inbox before the sun rises or on a quiet weekend afternoon. This is perfectly fine. We all have different responsibilities and daily realities. But try not to send that message you drafted at 2 a.m. Instead, manually press the “Send” button or schedule your message to go out during typical business hours.
It’s your job as a leader to protect team members who may be facing added stressors in their personal lives. Right now, we all need to safeguard our mental health. During this crisis, downtime is extra significant.
Even if you’re not in the lab developing a COVID-19 vaccine, you can certainly ensure your team members aren’t overstressed by emails after hours.
Walk your talk
Leading by example will bring your new email policies home.
Be aware that your team is always watching how you work, and they may be especially tuned in these days. That’s why you should create a clear email policy. Write it, share it, and stick to it.
Few of us are taking vacations at the moment. Nevertheless, reassure employees who are taking time for illness or personal reasons that they can fully log off from their computers and inboxes.
Technology allows us to be constantly available, but 24/7 connectivity isn’t healthy for anyone. Everyone needs time to recover from busy days jammed with competing responsibilities. Just as we’re all trying to protect each other from the virus, you can support your teams by respecting their personal time. You can start by putting into place healthy and manageable email practices.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.