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Guest Blogger Melina Leary : How to stop your inbox stopping you

This is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog. It was written by Melina Leary, my long suffering partner, about the blight that affects so many of us, so much of the time. Enjoy!

Introduction

Although the ability to send messages between computers has been possible from the early 1970s, when I started office work in 1987 it was not widely used as a mechanism for communication. Things were so much simpler in the “good ole days” though. I generally worked within co-located teams with our customer not far away. If I needed to consult with anybody, I only needed to glance across the desk or room to see if they were available.

Email as a blessing

Fast forward 30 years with advent of the internet and a major shift in the way we work, team members may now be scattered across a variety of locations around the world. No more glancing across the desk to check out a colleague’s availability to discuss a matter, they are somewhere else and may not even be awake. The email, along with instant messaging, are perfect tools for asking questions or obtaining feedback from someone who cannot be seen or who has such a strong regional accent is difficult to understand on the ‘phone anyway. Email is also perfect tools for introverts, it is so easy to hide behind a computer and fire off an electronic message and avoid a face to face confrontation.

Email as a curse

The problem now is that email is being used too much. I regularly hear colleagues complaining of email overload, especially after taking a few days off.  Some are even proud of the amount they get as if it is a sign of their importance. However, heavily loaded inboxes become unmanageable and sap productivity. 


Shouldn't take long to go through 4,294,967,295 messages!
A quick search on Google can bring up a number of ways of managing unruly inboxes, from only checking emails at certain times of day and using the 2-minute rule to respond, to flagging important ones and setting rules for auto filing. However, these are all reactive strategies. I firmly believe that if emails are coming in so fast that you can never get around to addressing them all in a timely manner, then it is time to sit back and plan a solution to the problem.

Stop the curse!   

One of the biggest issues I have seen recently is the habit of people to manage entire projects or functions using email as the communication mechanism. There are many other ways of collaborating and sharing information, and the key to doing it effectively for any endeavour is to Plan.

Planning means, identifying and understanding your stakeholders; working out who you need to deal with, why, and how they prefer to be engaged or informed. For example, there is no point in sending emails to people who are rarely online.

Planning how to engage with your team, managers and customers will help ensure communications are managed. Understand what is needed to be shared by who, when, how often, in what format and how shared, for example:

  • if possible, use collaborative tools and documentation repositories to prevent items from being emailed around. Make sure everyone is aware of the filing mechanism and uses the tool
  • use action logs for unscheduled activities to track who is doing what, and meet to progress actions rather than chase via email. If an email is to be sent out for action, put this clearly in the subject heading "For Action: " and only include people in the To: field who actually have to perform the action
  • don’t forget the good old fashioned mechanism of talking. If working in a virtual environment, ping the person first via Instant Messaging to check they are available. Talking to someone about a problem takes much less time than crafting a suitably worded email
  • avoid asking for consensus or opinion from more than one person by email. By doing that you open up a communication channels that may not involve you at all and lead to confusion. It is better to get everyone together in a room, on a call or, if email must be used, obtaining responses via a voting mechanism
  • if you are managing a team, impress upon team members that they do not need to copy you in on everything they are doing. Some do this to prove they are doing their job. It is not necessary; progressing can be done via 1-2-1s or team meetings  
  • notifications can be sent out via business social networking tools such as Yammer
It may not be possible to do any of the above under all circumstances, but using these techniques some of the time will prevent your inbox getting clogged up and missing anything really important.

Conclusion

Email is an essential tool in the workplace for passing on messages and collaborating with others, but, if your inbox is out of control you need to sit back and plan a better way of dealing with your collaborators.  Understanding your stakeholder requirements and planning communications will help keep your emails at acceptable levels and as a result, will increase productivity. 





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