Optimising Email

In March 2016, Maria Sharapova learnt an important lesson she’ll never forget.  

The devil is in the detail.  

My heart went out to her.  Her explanation was completely feasible, and it’s an issue I hear from industry leaders every day.  Many of my clients are in financial services and I hear constantly from them about how worried they are something will blind-side them. 

Like Maria Sharapova, they worry there will be an email in their inbox, or worse in the inbox of an employee they will gloss over, or not read, will turn out to be their next “Ebola”.

As a result, many executives develop the habit of being across every detail.  Some managers ask their people to cc them in on every email they send. Most of us jump to read all of our incoming correspondence as it arrives, reaching for our phones from the moment we wake up, staying connected all day until a moment before we go to sleep.  

The impact is we major in minor things.  Our anxiety paralyses us and instead of moving ourselves and our companies forward, we sit at our desk trying to work out what’s next?   

Let’s be clear.  Sharapova’s job wasn’t checking email.  It was training for competition.  She kept her eye on the ball literally and figuratively.  Unfortunately, appropriate strategies weren’t put in place to deal with the low value task of inbox management.

I also believe we need to learn from the ineffective way these issues were communicated to Sharapova and her peers.  Tennis authorities were quick to publicly denounce Sharapova with claims she was warned five times through correspondence.  

It reminds me of the number of times a business leader will say to me “I’ve communicated my priorities to my team” when I hear these complaints I probe further on how priorities have been communicated, and the answer is inevitably not effective.  “We discussed it in her interview” or “her expectations are clearly outlined in her position description” or “we sent a group wide email”.   

An effective communication strategy doesn’t rely on one form of communication.  Sure, send out email, but follow through with other channels like face-to-face communications, phone calls, and training.  Don’t blame the audience for not hearing a message if you haven’t considered their unique communication needs. 

What were the communications Sharapova missed that lead to her two-year ban?  She provided a summary via Facebook on how the information had been provided to her: 

On December 18th 2015, there was an email with a subject line “Player News” which contained a newsletter on a website that included information relating to upcoming tournaments, rankings, statistics, bulletin board notices, happy birthday wishes, and the missed anti-doping information.  

About this newsletter she said:

“ On that email, if a player wanted to find the specific facts about medicine added to the anti-doping list, it was necessary to open the “Player News” email, read through about a dozen unrelated links, find the “Player Zone” link, enter a password, enter a username, read a home screen with more than three dozen different links covering multiple topics, find the “2016 Changes to Tennis Anti-Doping Program and Information” link, click on it and then read a page with approximately three dozen more links covering multiple anti-doping matters. Then you had to click the correct link, open it up, scroll down to page two and that’s where you would find a different name for the medication I was taking.”

In other words, in order to be aware of this “warning”, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read. I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

  • An email titled “Main Changes to the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme” for 2016 sent on December 22nd 2015; and
  • A wallet card was distributed at various tournaments at the beginning of 2016 after the ban went into effect.  Sharapova uploaded it to her Facebook site if you’d like to see it.  Again, I imagine she had other things on her mind during these tournaments.  

It seems feasible to expect a phone call.  Likewise, I’d have expected regulatory bodies have some kind of drug register and could personally contact players via phone when the drugs they use are banned.  Perhaps a concierge service for sports people is a great idea for a business.

In Sharapova’s case, she accepted responsibility, took a 15 month ban and is filling her time with productive work such as studying at Harvard Business School, completing an internship with the NBA, and investing time in her business.

I think we all have something to learn from the Sharapova case.  If I were her I would put in place processes to make sure someone is paying attention to these details in future so she can focus on high-value work.  If it were me, I’d have someone reading correspondence from the regulatory bodies in question in close detail, providing me with summaries in our regular catch ups of the content and how they impact my business.

It doesn’t matter whether you have taken one side or another on this case (I’m with you Sharapova). It’s important to note one of the top tennis players in the world had her career de-railed through a lack of communication and poor processes of both the sender and the receiver.  

Don’t let this happen to you. 

Email and information security 

On November 24th 2014, a hacker group calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” leaked confidential information they sourced from Sony Entertainment Pictures servers including personal information of employees, executive and talent salaries, previous unreleased films, and (perhaps worst of all) email.

Besides costing the organisation millions of dollars, it saw the resignation of the Head of Sony Pictures at the time, Amy Pascal. Pascal and her colleagues learned something I’ve always been taught. Never put anything in writing you don’t want published on the front page of the newspaper or uploaded to WikiLeaks.

I won’t comment on the content of Pascal’s email because that Pandora’s box leads to a whole raft of social issues best written about in other books.  What the story tells us is everything is hackable, and we need to improve our security accordingly.  It also tells us to be more mindful about what we put in writing.  

Email is a powerful business tool as long as you know the rules and use it strategically. 

Email rules

Here are four rules on email use, which may have helped Pascal and colleagues;

  1. You should never send email when you’re emotional;
  2. You should never put anything in writing you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the National Newspaper or uploaded to WikiLeaks; 
  3. You should avoid sending work related email to colleagues after hours; and
  4. Pick up the phone when the subject matter is contentious. 

Email as a productivity tool

As an introvert, I’m pretty fond of the functionality email provides.  I can communicate a well-considered message in a timely fashion. I can think through an answer to a query before committing to a response in writing.  As a decision maker, I prefer to have all the detail provided to me in writing, so I can review it thoroughly before proceeding with big decisions. 

As an influencing tool, email doesn’t work for everyone.  My colleague, who is an extreme extrovert, is my opposite.  She’s never off the phone, and if you want her to make a decision you’re better off chatting her through the highlights, benefits and risks than sending her anything in writing or bogging her down in unnecessary detail.  She is best when she gets to bounce her ideas off you and talk things through.

Unproductive email habits

Many of us find email stressful.  We feel like slaves to our inbox, smart phone and/or tablet.  We may even be addicted to our email.  

As with other work stresses, email as a tool isn’t inherently stressful.  It’s our habits which create stress.  

The average employee:

  • Checks and responds to email too often (i.e. as they come in or every 15 minutes);
  • Has trouble keeping track of information and tasks, and spends too much time trying to locate it later and work out priorities (up to 2 hours per day); and
  • Feels stress as a result of email overload, often leading to a sense of being paralysed.

Productive email habits

Email is what I call a less activity.  It is filled mostly with reactive and low value work, and needs boundaries set around its use.

Productive ways to interact with your email:

  • Email batching. Email batching sets boundaries around this low value task, while also ensuring all correspondence is actioned mindfully.  This strategy is particularly effective when you travel as you continue to get low value work done at specific times rather than checking email constantly.  

    Ideally you should have a zero inbox after each batching period.  When you have 50 email in your inbox, you’ll find you’re multihandling information.  Either use your task management system, calendar, or a “to do” folder to manage your tasks;
  • Develop the habit of sticking to your calendar.  Your calendar should include reoccurring appointments for email batching (e.g. 2 to 3 x 30-minute sessions per day), task/deadline time (usually about 20per cent of your day), and blocks of time for high-value tasks (e.g. client work, project work, professional development etc.);
  • Create an unplugging strategy.  That is, deliberate time away from technology of any kind.  Great ideas include the kitchen table, a day on the weekend, holidays etc.;
  • Global protocols.  If you work in a global business, agree to email protocols with your global colleagues.  You may be turning around responses at a quicker rate than required.  Let these colleagues know when you will habitually turn off your email, and when you’ll check it each day.
  • Ask your colleagues to mark anything requiring urgent attention as urgent and anything they need by close of business, as COB.  That way, you can see at a glance what needs immediate attention, what needs to be done by 7 am or 8 am and deal with anything else during your batching times;
  • Executive Assistant support.  If you have full time EA coverage, ask your EA to review your inbox for you regularly, getting rid of anything you don’t need to see or respond to.  They should flag urgent email, and SMS you if anything requires urgent attention outside of your batching times.  

Agree to team email rules such as:

  • Always provide clear subject lines so people can tell what’s required at a glance.  (E.g. “Account Management Plan for your action. Reply by 10 September”);
  • Don’t cc team members and/or leaders in on correspondence unless necessary;
  • If you do cc someone into an email, include a line explaining why they have been included.  (e.g. cc’ing in Cholena as she is meeting with the client next week.)
  • Remove people from threads who don’t need to be included and use the “reply all” button sparingly;
  • Ban after hours email.  Never email clients after hours.  It’s intrusive of their time and it tells your clients you’re too disorganised to manage your workload during the normal work day.  

Also, avoid emailing other team members after hours (e.g. before 7:30 am or after 6:30 pm).  Remaining in constant contact with work during your personal time impacts upon your ability to separate work and life.  Agree if something genuinely urgent comes up you will SMS or call.  This allows everyone the ability to disconnect from their inbox knowing there is a system in place if they are truly needed;

  • Delay correspondence.  If you’re email batching after hours, disable your connection so email don’t send until you log in during work hours.  Alternatively, you can delay individual email from sending until business hours by clicking on the delay message option function;
  • Stop unnecessary emailing.  Agree acknowledgement replies like “thank you” aren’t necessary;
  • Limit email length.  Never email anything which is more than 500 words long.  Include an attachment instead; 
  • Don’t engage in email wars. Don’t email when feeling emotional.  As a rule, if it takes more than 10 minutes to craft a response, you should be having a conversation; and
  • Be mindful about content.  Never put anything in writing you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the newspaper or uploaded to WikiLeaks.  

Let me know how you go!

Keep moving forward,

Cholena xox

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