At a time when 67% of us are facing work-from-home burnout, it’s easy—and expected—to let our discipline slip. It began with our attire: 60% of U.S. workers admit to wearing casual or athletic wear when working from home. Then, came the formality: 36% of workers in the United Kingdom agree with the statement, “Most people I work with are much less formal with one another than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.” Then came the emails, at least for me: Emails that I would have otherwise re-read multiple times are now getting sent without a second glance.
While it’s important to to not overthink, not thinking at all can backfire. Take the case of scheduling meetings. As tempting as it may be to write, “Let’s find a time to meet” and leave it to others to figure out the logistics, doing so can lead to an explosion of back and forth emails.
Situations like this are preventable. It begins with taking a page from the world of user-centered design. Designers don’t force users to adapt their behaviors to use a given product or service. Instead, they put themselves in users’ shoes, observe their behaviors, and design experiences around their needs and wants.
Take Amazon, for example. Before the days of the now-common “buy now” button, users had to fill out their billing and shipping information every time they checked out. Amazon took the dozen painful steps, shrunk it down to single easy click, and saw its business boom. It all came down to making every step as user-friendly as possible.
Designing user-friendly experiences isn’t just the stuff of designers, though. It’s a mindset we can all apply to our day jobs in order to help others help ourselves. Here are five ways to earn the coveted title of “user-friendly coworker.”
1. Offer your full availability in the right time zone
Unless you are using Calendly or have access to the other person’s calendar (and an unspoken agreement to block off times without asking first), one of you will need to offer up your availability. Rather than push the burden onto others, consider taking the lead and offering your own availability in bullet point form in the other person’s time zone:
“Are you free for a 30-minute call at any of the following times (EST)?
- Mon: 1:30-3 p.m., after 4 p.m.
- Tue: 3-4 p.m.
- Wed: before 11am, 2-5 p.m.
- Fri: 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m., 1-4 p.m.”
This way, all the other person has to do is pick a time. If they’d like to pay back the user friendliness, they could (and ideally should) send the calendar invitation so you don’t have to.
2. Bundle your nudges
With instant messenger—and therefore our coworkers—at our fingertips, it can be tempting to nudge others the instant we have a question. Though such an approach might be easiest for you, it isn’t always the most user-friendly for those getting interrupted every twelve minutes. Rather than ask five questions five separate times, consider bundling those five questions and asking them all in a single sitting. Minimizing interruptions also applies when sending emails or calendar invitations to the same person. Consider sending all of your calendar invitations at the same time so that you aren’t triggering notifications every few minutes. Or, better yet, clarify how the other person would prefer to communicate.
3. Use easy-to-follow subject lines and file names
Using file names like “Draft” and subject lines like “Update” may be easy to write, but make for files that are impossible to find again. Instead, consider file names such as “ABC customer survey analysis – 2021-03-08.xlsx.” Such a format makes not only the file contents immediately obvious, but also the file easily sortable, even in a new year (unlike with dates such as “030821,” which become a nightmare a year later in 2022). Consider applying the same mindset to email subject lines by turning “Agenda” into “Review by 4 p.m.: Draft conference agenda.” Make it easy for others to know what they need to do and what the message is about without opening the email.
4. Write clear call-to-action phrases
Before hitting “send,” ask yourself, “What action or actions do I want the other person to take?” Whether it’s to answer a question, provide feedback, or share information, make the “call to action” clear. Put it upfront, bold it if needed, and, when you have multiple calls-to-action, list them out in bullet point form. The difference between sending a wall of text and writing “is there anything you’d change about the draft email below? Let me know before I send it out at 12 p.m. ET” could mean the difference between others ignoring your message and taking action. Need others to simply read your message? Insert an “FYI—see below,” followed by a quick explanation.
5. Schedule or draft your emails
Answering emails at night? Keep in mind that one fewer unread email in your inbox means one more unread email in your recipient’s inbox. And if you are a manager, your 11 p.m. emails could also send the unspoken expectation that your team should be awake and working when you are. To save others from the stress (at worst) and guesswork (at best), try clicking “send later” (in Outlook) or “schedule send” (in Gmail). That way, your email arrives when others are in a position to read and reply—and not when you care to clear your inbox.
While each of these five tactics does lead to more upfront work for you, the investment pays off. Your colleagues will view you as a solutions-oriented teammate rather than an inbox clogger. In a world of digital maximalism, be the proactive minimalist.
Gorick Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation low-income students and professionals. He has worked in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group and is a researcher with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. He is the first-time author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.