(4 mins read)
A few years ago, alongside my contractual work, I was part of two additional projects. The challenge was that the project teams were located in time zones different to the one I was in that time. My day-to-day work was in London and one project was managed from Singapore and another from New York. I was super happy and engaged as I was doing something different to my standard responsibilities, new professional relationships were established and those projects impacted my own development as well. I was learning a lot!
A week into these projects, I recognised that there is one significant problem related to my new situation, which I had not experienced in the past. A massive, unstoppable, permanent flow of emails was hitting my mailbox every day. It was like a huge red Amazon river constantly flooding my mailbox. At the beginning I tried to manage all incoming emails the same way I had done so in the past. I was opening, reading, understanding and actioning every single email. Pretty soon it became obvious that this was Sisyphean work. It was impossible to manage this email tsunami; even if I spent an evening the day before cleaning up my emails, the next morning my screen was again full with red emails.
At the end of the first week, when I had my morning coffee, I did a self-coaching session and started asking questions to understand the problem.
Could I stop this red river? … No!
Could I manage all emails on time and with the right quality? …No!
Could I switch off my mailbox? …Yes, but I am not sure how long his innovative idea would be tolerated by my manager, team and the people with whom I worked on the projects.
Could I change the way I worked and the way I managed my emails? …Yes!
The self-coaching sessions helped me to focus on areas which could help me to manage my day-to-day work and additional projects. I focused on introducing new working environment and email etiquette.
NEW WORKING HABITS
First, I decided not to send an email if there was a need to discuss or align on a problem or idea. During a 15-MINUTE CHAT, we can explain what the problem is and how the person we’re talking to can contribute. We ensure that if there are questions we will be able to answer them immediately. So, it was all about time, clarity, understanding and alignment. This approach brought another quick win. I also understood that if I do not send out emails, then I do not receive replies, additional questions, side discussions, etc… Second, when I saw some long email exchanges or unproductive discussions, I was proposing a call to discuss the challenge that we were trying to solve. In many cases, we learned that if you call for a 30-45-minute Teams chat with people who could genuinely contribute, then this was usually sufficient to discuss, understand and identify appropriate actions to solve a problem.
Based on some analysis, I also understood that about 50-70% of emails I received were sent by my key stakeholders, like a manager, direct reports and closest project team members. We introduced 30-60-MINUTE CALLS EVERY WEEK where we discussed priorities, emergencies, etc… From the beginning, we recognised a significant decrease of emails sent and received. It was a massive quality change as well. When we talked we were actually able to discuss a topic more deeply, ask the right questions and make some decisions.
Finally, there was another important element which had a positive impact on a number of received emails. During one of the first weekly calls with all of my direct reports, we discussed their EMPOWERMENT in delivering in an independent way. We discussed and agreed on all areas of their responsibilities. It helped us in identifying two zones: a zone of choice, where they had full empowerment to make decisions, and a zone of no choice, where they had to discuss, align or escalate. This particular change had a positive impact on the number of emails, what is more important to our culture and ways in which the team worked.
Another important element was implementing some good practices when sending out emails. Below are simple tips you can immediately use with no cost.
Keep it Simple and Smart: don’t complicate it . Be precise and to-the-point; your message should contain a maximum of 3-5 sentences or bullet points, otherwise, people will not have time to read and consider the content of the email.
Subject: precisely describe the content of the email. Also, mention whether: it is urgent, for your information only (FYI), perhaps requires an action, approval or requires some decision to be made.
Recipients: carefully select the people you want to include in the email. Those who are required to give a response or an action should have the email sent to them directly. Whereas those who only need to be informed, can be cc’d.
Proper layout: utilise the options to make your writing bold, underlined and written in different colours; it will attract attention!
Drafts: create drafts of your most important emails, save them and read them again the next day in the morning.
A combination of new working habits and strict email etiquette helps me to manage multiple challenges and priorities. They have stayed with me for longer as I fall in love with new habits that work.
Share these with your friends around the office. Promote and build new habits!