It starts pretty innocently. You send an email asking for information. The other person responds. Then you need and ask for more information, and he or she responds. Then because you want to show gratitude, you send a thank-you message, and the person then feels obligated to respond … again.
Later, you have another question, maybe even an unrelated one, and it’s easier to just hit “Reply” than it is to create a new message, with a new subect line. Perhaps the email is forwarded to someone else or the recipient CCs other people (even if the message has nothing to do with them) just “in case.” Messages get lobbed back and forth, messages that are often very short, so people need to ask for more details. Suddenly, you have an email string a mile long, and a number of people have an influx of emails setting in their inbox.
I’ve spent a lot of time, talking to a lot of people, and regardless what business they’re in or what type of team they have, one of their biggest complaints when it comes to communicating with coworkers are long email threads. Email threads that they often have to dig through to fully understand the conversation. Email threads that clutter their inboxes and bury other more important information. Email threads that are completely irrelevant to them. Or emails threads that are critically important to them, but the information is buried, so they don’t actually benefit from it.
The problem exists in every business, and it happens when every employee is in one location. However, it is especially significant for remote teams, primarily because email is often the most used form of communication, and because CCing everyone seems to be a quick way to share information and updates.
I urge you, however, to put into place these rules that will rein in the chaos and save everyone’s time:
- If the topic being discussed has no relevance to the subject line of the email, change the subject line. Even if you are replying to the original message.
- If the relevant information is more than two emails deep in the thread, cut and paste the relevant information into a new email.
- The same goes with attachments. Download and save them immediately because trust me, you’ll never find them again, which will create more email.
- If you’re CCing people on the thread, explain what they should be looking at and why the email matters to them. Don’t expect them to scroll through the entire thread to uncover the problem or understand the situation. Even better: Cut and paste the relevant information for the person into a new email.
- If you really need to create a paper trail of email communication, use a file folder on your email directory to save relevant information. Name it something you’ll actually understand when you come back to it in two weeks.
- If you’re relying on that email thread entirely, you’re one accidental “delete” away from disaster. Make sure you are keeping good notes and documenting information carefully.
When we are busy, it’s all too easy to send an email without thinking. Or to take the easiest, quickest option. Be more mindful when you use email, and you will save yourself and everyone else a good bit of time and frustration.
Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology.
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