Why I Adore Email

email inbox not zeroThe number of emails these days is problematic for many people, particularly professionals. Efforts are being made to reduce the volume of email – and this is a good thing, in principle. Yet some of the methods people are choosing don’t seem to me to be solving the problem.

My perception of this is particularly acute because I’m an indie. If you work for an organisation that decides everyone will use Trello for project management, or your department decides to use a WhatsApp group for internal admin, then fair enough. You know what you have to do and everyone you work with is doing the same thing. But recently five separate clients have asked me to use Slack, Trello, Basecamp, SharePoint, and a WhatsApp group, for project management or discussions or both. Also, I have missed work offered to me via Facebook Messenger, and I rather think a prospective client has fallen out with me as a result which is a very unfortunate outcome from my point of view. I’m not signed up to Messenger (never did think it was a good idea to give FB my phone number) so I don’t always get messages people send me on there. Other clients have approached me via DMs on Twitter, which are slightly more reliable but again I don’t always get the notifications so I don’t always pick up the messages. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens on Instagram.

There are several issues here. Let’s start with social media. Not everyone is on Facebook or WhatsApp. Even if someone appears on a platform you use, they may not use it in the same way as you. If you send someone a private message for the first time, and you don’t hear back as quickly as you expect, let them know in a public space that a message is waiting for their attention. And generally I would advise not using these systems for professional messages. These messages are not searchable, and they cannot be backed up except through a saved screenshot which is also not searchable. They are certainly not confidential; I know email, too, can be hacked, but if you use appropriate security it’s more secure than web-based messages. Also, I doubt that agreements made via social media – especially in private messages – are legally binding; or at least, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been tested.

Then there are the web-based programs and apps such as Trello, Slack, Basecamp and Sharepoint. Several of these are designed on the basis that one person = one login = one location. And the login is usually your email address. These systems are designed for organisations, not for indies. Recently I had a Basecamp account with one organisation and then needed to use my email for a different account with a different organisation – but the web-based system couldn’t provide that option. I spent best part of a day working with the second organisation’s IT department to find a way to resolve this problem. And of course, for me, that time is unpaid, which makes it even more galling.

All these systems are intended to reduce the volume of work in general and emails in particular. In my experience they don’t; they increase the volume of work and of emails. Learning a new system takes time and it’s not always easy. I now get email notifications from several of these systems, sometimes in multiples per day, clogging up my inbox. I can turn off notifications but then I have to remember to log in everywhere regularly or I miss important work messages. Logging in to several systems several times a week = more work.

However, it is true that the volume of email has become a problem. These days I get around 50-250 emails per day; I know some people get many more. A lot of these are junk or spam and swiftly deleted, but the rest take time to answer. There are various methods we can use to help manage emails, such as:

  1. Inbox zero. This is not about having no emails in your inbox, it’s about managing your emails so effectively that they don’t take up space in your head. Implementing some or all of the suggestions below can help you to achieve this.
  2. Those e-newsletters that induce only guilt because you never actually read them? Unsubscribe. The annoying spam that keeps on coming? Unsubscribe. Now that the EU has instituted GDPR, unsubscribing actually means something.
  3. Check email at specific times, say once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The rest of the time, turn off email notifications so you can concentrate on work.
  4. When you read an email, if possible deal with it straight away. If that’s not possible, tag it and make a note on your to-do list or equivalent to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.
  5. Use folders to sort emails into ‘Read’, ‘Answer’, ‘Keep’ or suchlike categories. You can also use folders for emails related to specific projects.
  6. Delete everything you don’t need (though be sure it definitely is surplus to requirements).
  7. Don’t reply to any email unless a reply is truly necessary. If you’re cc’ed so you know what’s going on, do you really need to add to the discussion?

As this last point suggests, it helps to take care when you’re writing emails, too. Don’t write an email unless it’s really necessary, and when you do write, try to be as succinct as possible. I see, and I appreciate, a tendency to leave out the courtesies, such as ‘I hope you’re well’ (which is horribly insensitive if the person you’re emailing has a chronic health condition, as a lot of us do) and ‘best wishes/kind regards’. Email, used properly, is more like a conversation, with direct exchanges.

It seems to me that email has huge advantages over other systems. For example:

  1. You can work offline (as I often do – I’m writing this post on a train) including during power cuts, at least for as long as your battery lasts.
  2. Email is searchable. I recently had an email from someone I couldn’t remember but who evidently knew me quite well. I found the last email she’d sent me – 10 years ago! – which reminded me that we had worked together on a project, and meant I could send her a suitable response.
  3. You can tag emails with different colours for different actions.
  4. Emails can be filed by topic or project.
  5. Email is easy to back up and preserve.
  6. Agreements made by email have legal standing as contracts.

So, for all its downsides, I would like to stick to using email. But am I a dinosaur? Or am I missing something crucial? And what do you think about professional communication in 2019? Let me know in the comments.

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Professional Modes of Contact

DebrettsWhen I first learned about the world of work, around 35 years ago, professional etiquette was part of the curriculum. For example, if you directed a letter to a specific person, such as ‘Dear Professor Malik’, you ended the body of the letter with ‘yours sincerely’. If you used a generic direction – in those days almost always ‘Dear Sir(s)’ – you ended with ‘yours faithfully’. You could use an underlined subject line after the direction to indicate the topic, as we do now with emails. If you needed to write to a bishop, or an equerry, or the Queen, you could look in Debrett’s for the proper way to address them. There was a rule for everything.

Our ways of communicating for work are developing so fast that etiquette can’t catch up. I’ve seen earnest discussions online about email etiquette: when to sign off with ‘best wishes’ and when to use ‘kind regards’; whether it’s ever acceptable to use ‘wbw’ (short for ‘with best wishes’) or, even more daringly, nothing at all. Opinions always vary. Nobody knows whether it’s OK to address an email to someone using their given name if you haven’t met them face-to-face. Similar questions of etiquette arise for WhatsApp groups (can you leave if it’s a work-based group?), Skype conversations (when is it OK to use the instant messaging feature?), and so on.

Then there’s the question of when it is, or isn’t, OK to make contact at all – which is rarely asked. Given that everyone seems to be suffering from inbox bloat, as well as having to juggle private messages on a range of social media platforms, I think this is an important conversation to have. One of the downsides of being perceived as a successful independent researcher is that I receive an increasing number of inappropriate initial contacts, often from students who want me to do their work for them. It’s reaching the point where I struggle to respond to them all – and I’m a compulsive communicator who types at over 90 wpm, so if I’m having trouble, I guess others may be even more so.

This problem is exacerbated by the sheer number of ways in which people can make contact with each other online. It seems every social media platform enables messaging. I get personal messages via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Google Hangouts… maybe I also get them on Pinterest and Medium and Tumblr and other platforms I joined but rarely use. Then clients often want me to use specific platforms such as the loathsome SharePoint, or Slack, or b2drop, or they give me an email address at their organisation, and I’m supposed to check all of these several times a day in case a message has arrived. It’s a nightmare!

Facebook is a particular problem because I’m not signed up to Messenger. I was a bit suspicious of Facebook from the start. I gave it minimal information about me and I never used it to play games, or for apps, or to sign in to other websites. I don’t click on ads (though I know they’re the reason I can use the platform for free) and the reason I didn’t sign up to Messenger is because I had to give my phone number, which I wasn’t willing to do. As a result I don’t get the junk messages people complain about, or the historical reminders (which I would really hate), or any of the other FB-related hassle. But there are downsides too. One academic colleague was quite put out with me recently because I hadn’t replied to a private message she’d sent me on Facebook; of course she didn’t know I wouldn’t have seen it, because Messenger doesn’t give users that information. I know other academics who seem to prefer to communicate about work via direct messages on Twitter. I HATE THIS. Surely email is best for professional communication? It’s searchable, you can back it up… I lose messages on other platforms. I don’t mind them for a quick question or comment, but for anything involving actual arrangements, I need to use email because I make so many arrangements with so many different people that it’s really easy to lose track.

It seems we’ve reached a point where everyone prefers different modes of communication – and there are so many available that there is no longer a professional norm or standard. Perhaps it’s OK to contact anyone, at any time, through any medium, to ask for anything we want. In one way that’s a kind of freedom. But when you’re on the receiving end, it can feel like another kind of shackle. Is this really how we want our professional lives to be?