Les carnets Web de La Grange
Publié : Mise à jour : Translation:

This is a translation of Apprendre à travailler avec le mail, by Karl Dubost. Errors are mine. [Go back home]

Learning to work with e-mail

A few years ago, while working for agence pheromone in Montréal, I gave a presentation on using e-mail in the workplace. Unfortunately, it is still valid. This is part of the little things that are not taught.

Slide 01 - You Got Mail
01: You Got Mail

Working well with e-mail is essential for numerous reasons:

Slide 02 - Volume of e-mail
02: Volume of e-mail

The volume of mail received each month can be intimidating. Many people mention an objective of the week is "INBOX zero." That is, all e-mail is processed. Wouldn't it be better to set a goal to end the week knowing your work progress, ​​what has been done and what remains to be done? E-mail is just a tool to achieve this. A devilishly effective one when used correctly. It is the purpose of the following few recommendations, easy to implement in a small structure as well as among your customers.

Slide 03 - Composing e-mail
03: Composing e-mail

E-mail is very simple. It consists of a sender (From), one or more recipients (To, Bcc, Cc), a subject line ((Subject)), and text. When each of these fields is used properly, many problems are solved.

About the subject line

Slide 04 - Examples of subject lines
04: Examples of subject lines

The subject line is certainly the first pitfall in wasting time generating and processing e-mail. Here is a list based on actual situations at work:

  1. Management meeting, tomorrow Wednesday 2PM
  2. Project ballpark for comments on video section
  3. Acme Inc
  4. Love For Ever - Microsite Iceland - Kick-off
  5. concept map

Can you tell those relevant from the catastrophic ones?

Slide 05 - Evaluating subject lines
05: Evaluating subject lines

Of course, our immediate answer depends a lot on our own knowledge of the matter.

  1. Good: "Management meeting, tomorrow Wednesday 2PM"

    E-mail is dated. "Tomorrow" tells me this is this week and Wednesday is the day of the week. A lot of information is already available and I know if I should read that mail or not. Be careful of contextual dates in case of an international distributed team. Note that perhaps [Agenda] is missing from the subject line, if this is the case. I would probably rewrite this: [Agenda] Management meeting, Wednesday 18 March 2009 or [Agenda] Management meeting - 2009-03-18. The complete logistics of the meeting should be in the body of the message.

  2. Maybe: "Project ballpark for comments on video section"

    That message depends a lot on the shared context of the people receiving it. It will become very difficult to understand when a new employee joins the team or when you reread it in 3 years. The project in question is not mentioned.

  3. Bad: "Acme Inc"

    This one is very bad. It supplies no context on the content and doesn't help me determine whether I must read it or may ignore it while I focus on useful work.

  4. Good: "Love For Ever - Microsite Iceland - Kick-off"

    From this subject line I know the name of the project is "Love For Ever", that it is a Microsite for Iceland and it is probably the mail explaining the context of launching the project.

  5. Bad:"concept map"

    Same comment as for "Acme Inc", the content is probably about a concept map, but why and in what context? Beyond a few months, the information will be generating noise.

Slide 06 - Subject lines as filters
06: Subject lines as filters

The subject line is a filter. It allows you to:

About the recipient(s)

Slide 07 - Mail for work
07: Mail for work

Another pitfall of work e-mail is the misuse of recipients. How often do we receive e-mail that isn't immediately useful to the execution of our work. In the To field you must include the person who is responsible for the action to perform or the person who must absolutely read the message. The more you add the less effective your message. It is always best to have a single point of contact even if that person works in a team with another person on a given task. The work will be done but one person only is responsible for its execution. Some messages serve to provide context more than action, as we'll see below.

Why does it matter? This allows each team member to create a dynamic mailbox displaying all messages that directly involve them. These messages then have priority for work progress.

Slide 08 - Individuals in context
08: Individuals in context

Having chosen the person to whom the message is addressed, we can inform another who isn't directly involved in the execution but who needs to know progress is being made. The Cc field exists for this purpose.

Slide 09 - Lists archives
09: Lists archives

Mailing list archives on the Web (private of public) are an essential element to e-mail based work in an organisation. If you work for one and Web mail archives aren't available, add it to your agenda as a work requirement.

Mailing lists with Web archives help get over the cognitive overload and stress of INBOX zero. They let you avoid to read everything, even delete messages if you do not wish to keep them.

They're an inexpensive way to automatically archive information, keep the context and ensure the continuity of history in the organisation without your presence. In most cases organisations have existed before your period of employment and will exist after you leave. Each message and/or discussion having a unique Web address (URL), it becomes possible to recall the context of a discussion, a decision or an action without having to resent a flurry of twenty or so top-posted messages.

You can create lists that are department-based, project-based, including your clients or not (I recommend you include your clients on projects lists).

For a given work message, fill the Cc field with the related mailing list. Person to person messages are useful only in specific circumstances such as human resource matters or high confidentiality. All the rest must be shared. If it is not the case, it is symptomatic of a workflow issue to fix in your organisation.

Slide 10 - Progressing on the project
10: Progressing on the project

We covered the potential recipients of a message. The goal is for everyone to progress in work and avoid sources of distraction while keeping context in the background. A received message is not necessarily a message to read, everything depends on the elements that are included.

The body of the message

Slide 11 - Who are you talking to?
11: Who are you talking to?

You have to send a message so that Paul can perform a precise task. You've included a recipient, a discussion list and given context. The subject line is good. Remember to begin your message with the name of the person to whom it is addressed. Think of it as a meeting with several people around the table. When you address someone, there is a physical and verbal language that accompanies your communication with someone, whether you're giving instructions or seeking an answer. The same goes for e-mail; name your interlocutor.

Slide 12 - Give context
12: Give context

It is likely that the person needs contexts. A previous discussion archived 6 months before, the name of the project in question, etc. Try to be brief but concise to enable the person to understand what is being asked.

Slide 13 - Ask questions
13: Ask questions

If the purpose of your e-mail is to get a response, you must ask a question. Your recipient is not supposed to guess whether it is information, a task to perform or a question.

Slide 14 - We want to work efficiently
14: We want to work efficiently

What is the desired result of this message, what is the instruction that will achieve this result? We just want to maximise efficiency and save time for everyone in the exchange of information.

An example and its improvement

Slide 15 - Improving e-mail
15: Improving e-mail

This received message indicates it is about a report on a release of the week prior. It includes interlocutors, has a subject line. The content is brief, perhaps too brief. It is already well done. Can it be further improved?

Slide 16 - Improved e-mail
16: Improved e-mail

The subject line can be improved if conventions have been (collectively) agreed for [mobile-matcha] messages. A quick glance and one can tell in which category or project the message belongs. People can automatically sort messages by creating filters.

The subject line indicates the report is in January 2014. In this project there are monthly reports. After a few months, we get a global ideal of its evolution. Note: this is in response to another message which subject line was less relevant.

We have a single contact. This is a question to someone who can provide an answer, probably the main developer. The discussion list for this client's projects is copied, as well as someone else who needs to know of the project evolution, perhaps the main contact on the customer's side.

The body of the message starts with the name of the main recipient. Precise questions are asked and context is supplied via information that is already on the Web. It ends on a thank you note.

Progressing work with healthy communications

Slide 17 - Example of insults
17: Example of insults

Sometimes, in a work relationship, e-mail is an opportunity to let one's hair down. This isn't professional. So, another advantage of involving customers in discussions is that it may prevent such misconducts in communication.

Slide 18 - Result of insults
18: Result of insults

Using insult, inappropriate language, or trolling, is the best way to put a wrench in the gears of your project and not go forward. If you are upset because the project is not progressing as you want, insult is the best way for your project to remain off-rail. Be polite, it saves time and efficiency.


Slide 19 - Simple rules
19: Simple rules

Those are very simple rules. They allow you to handle with peace most of your messages. They do not cover everything. There are many other things, but that could be for a more complete presentation.

Slide 20 - Some additional rules
20: Some additional rules
  1. Use dynamic filters; they let you build and undo work contexts for your messages without worrying about sorting them.
  2. Use text for your messages, not HTML and no colours. You don't know if your contacts use a mail user agent that can display your messages as you crafted them. If your colours disappear, the message becomes hard to understand and you are wasting time.
  3. Do not send a Word document containing what you wish to convey. If this is text, type it directly in your e-mail.
  4. If the document is big, if it is meant as a reference for a project, do not send it over e-mail, but put it online first in a controlled environment shared by the organisation, and place a link to it in your message.
  5. Web archives of your messages are here to preserve the memory of the project. Send the URL of an old message to recall context. Do not top post, remove everything that is not necessary and answer in line and in context.
Slide 21 - One last thing
21: One last thing
Slide 22 - You got mail again
22: You got mail again