I recently accepted a position as an interim communications director for a large nonprofit. Suddenly, the volume of email I receive shot up dramatically, and so did my level of frustration.
Why do we generate so much email?
I’ve thought about some of the legitimate reasons I’ve written so many emails lately:
- I am working remotely most of the time.
- I need to communicate with several people at once.
- I need to send or receive a file or link from someone.
- Others are too busy to meet with me.
- I don’t necessarily need a quick response. Or any response.
- I have to have a written record of a conversation.
I should confess that I write fundraising emails for a living, too.
I’ve also noticed some not-so-legitimate reasons for emails:
- C.Y.A. ” This is not my fault/problem/job and I want to make that official.”
- I’m not really sure who to talk to about a task and just didn’t take the time to find out.
- I have to confront someone or bring up an uncomfortable issue and I am too chicken to do it directly.
- I was too hasty in reading others’ emails and ended up creating misunderstandings that take twice as long to clear up.
- It’s not an appropriate time to call so I decide to send an email just to check the task off of my to-do list, rather than trying to call at a better time.
- I am procrastinating about a more important task so I check email yet again.
“Dude, it’s called the phone.”
Years ago, that’s what I told a friend who complained to me about having too much email. But I didn’t really take my own advice. Starting today, however, I’m going to rethink email. To help me, I started this list of when it would be better to pick up the phone or set up a meeting instead:
- A project doesn’t have clear goals yet.
- I can’t identify a “decider” who is responsible for resolving an issue or completing a task.
- I have to impart some confidential information.
- I have to teach somebody and walk them through a process, or be taught something myself.
- I need an answer NOW.
- I haven’t been able to establish credibility or rapport with someone, and I really need to.
- I sense a high level of concern, frustration, or confusion about an issue.
- The person I’m working with is just not a good communicator in writing.
- Several emails have been sent back and forth and nothing has actually been resolved.
It also took me a while to get into the groove of managing a team.
I’m not just managing myself, I’m essentially running a department again. I have a great team but I’ve been out of the cube farm for so long that it took about three weeks before the idea of a “status meeting” got back into my consciousness. When the light bulb went off in my head, I set up weekly conference calls through freeconference.com. We run through everything in about an hour and save at least quadruple that amount of time in sending emails back and forth.
And then there’s the fact that I don’t just work with desk jockeys.
Most of the people I support in this nonprofit spend their days supervising staff and serving clients. Some of them don’t even have their own workstations and carry their files on a thumb drive hanging from their ID badge lanyards. They don’t answer emails very often, and when they do, it’s usually late in the day or at night. In these cases, I have to remember that the cell phone is my best friend.
What about you? How do you feel about work-related email? How do you keep it under control?
Bonus: A couple of good blogs about email from the very busy Deb Ng of Kommein, one of my favorite blogs.
14 Reasons Why I Didn’t Respond to Your Email Five Minutes After You Sent It
10 Reasons I Don’t Answer Your Email