Email

Email has been around for about 25 years and become an important communication channel in business.

Since we started presenting the principles of TightOps and received feedback from people at talks and in client relations, we realized that tips and ideas around how and when to use email – and when not to – are often helpful, and a good starting point to improve your communications. You can also see how email relates to and complements the other communication channels.

Email at a Glance

Type Interruption-Level Style & Tone Used through Popularity Reach
asynchronous low casual to formal app / browser high individual, group, mass

"Email allows asynchrony: each participant may control their schedule independently." (Wikipedia)

Email Subjects

It is preferable to only handle one issue and subject per email. That sometimes means you will send mulitple emails to the same recipient(s) in short order, but it has a few advantages:

  • With issues separated into individual email messages, the chance for each of them to get closed and translated into a decision or tasks is highly increased
  • The more the subject of the email points directly to the one issue, the easier it is to identify in your inbox or findable by search

One subject per email.

Most modern email clients or web application display your inbox as a list of items. The two elements are most helpful to visually filter through this list are:

  • the sender/recipient
  • and the subject line of the email.

Make your subject lines as specific and descriptive as possible.

Example:

Instead of using the subject “Updates” while composing an email message, try “Updates about options to simplify checkout process”, or ”Simplifying checkout process”. This subject directly addresses the issue at hand and will also make it easy to search for later with a search phrase like “checkout process”.

Email Recipients

When composing an email you define the recipient(s). There can be multiple email addresses in the recipients field, seperated by commas. The person (or people) listed here are the primary addressees of the message.

You can add further email addresses to the CC-field, which stands for carbon copy. You “CC” people to keep them in the loop about the content of the message or to allow later access for reference.

A third level of recipients is the BCC-field (blind carbon copy). Email addresses added here are not visible for any of the other recipients. They will also not be included in when the email action “reply“ (or reply all) is used.

Email Style Guide

Email can be seen as a replacement for postal mail and letters. Its style and tone follow the same basic rules.

When you compose emails you should restrain yourself to the use of

  • bold,
  • lists,
  • citation levels (in conversation threads),
  • monospace font

Styles that should be avoided:

  • font color other than black (except the automatic coloring that occurs with citation in conversation threads)
  • any other unnecessary formatting

Quotations

Quotations are an important feature to be used in replies and conversation threads.

Quoting lets you to address and reply to a specific part of the previous email(s) or conversation.

Use quotations to address and reply to specific parts of the message.

Addressing the Recipient

When composing an email the recipient is addressed at the beginning in a more or less formal, letter-like way.

Address the recipient(s) at the beginning of your correspondence.

Email Actions

  • Reply / reply all (conversation threads)
  • Forward (the FYI rule)
  • Archive
  • Mark as read / unread

Reply / Reply All

Replying to an email either creates a new conversation thread or extends an existing one. If more than one recipients have received the email at hand, you can decide to reply to the sender only, or to everybody on the recipient list.

As a general rule in TightOps, you should always evaluate whether somebody needs to receive this information, or, if you can spare them having to process it (this is also covered in more detail in the Channel Communication Code.

Forward

When forwarding emails make sure to provide the necessary context or a quick summary at the top that points to the most important parts of the message.

Example:

Hi Max,
here is Michael’s reply to our proposal. Take a look at the paragraph “Technology” and please add his requirements to your spec doc.
insert the forwarded text here

The FYI Rule:

Don’t simply (and lazily) forward emails to your teammates and make them read the entire message – or even worse, the whole conversation thread.

Attachments

Email used to be a way to send, share, and distribute other documents or files as attachements. This practice has always been very limited in different aspects, i.e. file size, number of files, file types, etc. Attachments have also been and still are the major way to ditribute viruses and malware.

In recent years, more and more attachments, or reference material is shared with other services that are either connected to email (e.g. Google Drive and GMail) or provide URL links to be included in the message, like Dropbox and many others.

There are better ways to store and share files than sending them via email.

Managing Your Email Inbox

The amount of emails we receive in the workplace seems to be increasing daily. Because of this trend, more and more people struggle to keep up with email, or their inbox: The unread messages count on your email client just won’t go to zero. So how do you cope with the onslaught? Or, do you even have to? We will look into that.

Processing Email

At the core of managing your email inbox is the idea of processing. That is the point of interaction with all new, incoming messages. Basically, every email in you inbox forces you to make a decision. The more emails, the more decisions you need to make – and that becomes tiring very quickly.

Having a reliable and trusted way to process your emails and make these decision without too much energy spent, is what we are aiming for.

Merlin Mann, who came up with "Inbox Zero", put it this way:

Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.

Merlin further suggests five ways an email can be processed, :

  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do

The idea here is to get rid of as many messages as possible, leaving the ones you need to actually do something about.

To start, let’s look at two major ways to keep track of processed versus un-processed emails in your inbox:

  • The Read/Unread System
  • The Archiving System

The Read/Unread System

I have personally used the the read/unread system for years before I made the switch to archiving. Therefore, I feel there is a natural progression here, but that doesn’t mean you need to start with the read/unread system.

The idea is simple: messages that have been processed are marked as read and can be ignored from that time on. You just keep them around for reference, while in fact only focusing on everything unread in your inbox.

Because of that “rule”, you need to mark some emails as unread even though you have in fact just read them. The status unread provides a way of saying that still you have to do something (undefined) about this message.

One of the downsides of this approach is that your inbox is always full, and on top of that, you may need to sort your inbox to keep everything unread at the top so it doesn’t get buried somewhere out of sight.

A variation or refinement of this approach is to create a smart folder that will contain (or rather show) all unread emails. If you do this you are getting closer to the archiving approach.

The Archiving System

Again, simple idea: everything that has been processed, gets archived. The messages are still in your email account, but not in your inbox.

Archiving is not deleting. It just moves the messages out of sight. This leads to a more clean, less cluttered inbox.

Search in Email

As in other tools and channels, search is of the essence. You have to Become a Master at Search.