As You Work Remotely, Email More Effectively

Choose veracity over velocity

Image for post
Image for post

Contrary to some traditionalists, I love e-mail. I love how it has made the telex and the fax obsolete. I love how it has enabled me to travel and work from anywhere. I love that I can conveniently track business correspondence with just a few clicks on my phone.

However, it seems that this ready access and convenience has made us less inclined to exercise propriety in online communications. When mobile phones are within reach, it is easy to forget that e-mail replaced the handwritten correspondence that would usually take 2–3 drafts and rigorous proofreading before it is sent via snail mail, or in more developed countries, the pneumatic dispatch tube. The slow, painstaking care that we used to give our own piece of literature has been withheld by our need for speed. The result is a force of habit that responds to professional mail as if it were a text, with emoji clutter, shortcuts, and worse, horrible spelling.

Message alerts can be treacherous, especially when e-mail can be checked on your phone. Those who settle for default settings on our devices would be jolted by a vibrate unable to distinguish between SMS and e-mail. Text messages could be urgent, e-mail less so. If the message is a matter of life and death, you will get a call. By force of habit, you pick up your phone and end up spending time on e-mail that you thought was a text, and down the rabbit hole you go.

Many of us have grown so accustomed to these habits that the incentive to change is lost. I had to learn the hard way that getting interrupted by a buzz or a beep is a distraction I cannot afford if I want to spend more of my time reading and writing. I had to learn to unlearn skimming messages and rush responding, which is reckless and lazy and potentially detrimental to one’s reputation if inadvertent emails get sent to the wrong person.

I have been working remotely for a few years now, so sending and receiving good emails is par for the course. But even without the sudden surge of telecommuters today due to the pandemic, most working people use e-mail every day. These are strange times, however, and good or bad, our e-mail behavior will impact the people receiving our message. A succinct, empathetic and properly worded correspondence could easily brighten one’s day, and an incomplete communique is an instant source of annoyance. Perhaps, as we navigate an already tense, uncertain work milieu, we can spare our teams and ourselves the inconvenience of being on and accessible all the time by doing a quick review of useful email tools and tips.

Uninstall

If possible, limit your access to email by checking it on your computer, not your phone. If you must have it on your phone, keep notifications turned off and check email in batches (i.e. check and respond to email for one hour in the morning, and then another in the afternoon). On-demand checking of email is a major time suck, and I find that this practice reduces the amount of distraction that keeps me away from deep, intentional work such as writing.

Strive for inbox zero

I do not like unread mail because unread mail signifies work for me and by existing, it reminds me that I am neglectful of my duties. Not good, especially since there is a lot of clutter from the Interwebs that manage to make their way into my inbox using my data that I had unknowingly surrendered to online marketers.

I strive for inbox zero because it lets the urgent matters stand out.

The easy way to do this is to type the command “is:unread” on the Gmail search box, which shows all the unread email. Delete right away all the spam: newsletters from e-commerce sites where you may have recently made a purchase, frequent flier promotions, and so on. This eliminates having to scroll or search for an unread email which could take a while. Take the time to visit your newsletter’s website and press the “unsubscribe from all emails” button to terminate the influx of unwanted mail.

Prioritize

When all that is visible on your screen is unread mail, do a quick scan and click on those that require your most urgent attention. Respond to those first and then work your way down to the least important until all the emails have been read.

Go straight to the point

When drafting an email, ditch the greetings and niceties. After “Dear ____,” go straight to “Here’s the draft speech. Let me know what you think,” or whatever your message is. Make sure that in every e-mail you send, every word matters. Do this and you are doing not just yourself, but also the receiver, a big favor. They too do not have all day.

Edit the subject

When you receive a forwarded message without a subject, with just a mere “Fw:” on the subject line, or has a subject that you feel is no longer relevant to the email text, you have the liberty to revise, especially for longer threads that are important. This will help you search the topic easily in your inbox when you feel the need to refer back to it at a later time. How many times have you searched for an attachment that you are sure you did not delete, and yet it never comes up on the search box no matter how hard you try? Even though Gmail, which I use, has employed machine learning for email and PDF attachments, the odds of finding what you are looking for are still higher if the keywords are indicated on the subject line.

Bcc is your best friend

Bcc stands for blind carbon copy, a fast, ingenious way of privately notifying your boss or colleagues that you have done exactly what you have committed to do. This protects us from the nightmare of being sent a “reply all” email and bear witness to the sausage factory — a long exchange that involves numerous people coordinating and updating to arrive at the intended goal. Spare your boss and colleagues who are least concerned from this thread — they do not need to know how the sausage is made — and just report back when the mission is accomplished.

Make your signature simple

Some e-mail signatures are cluttered and take up space. Apart from the basic company information, there are those who add links to all their social media accounts and sometimes even an inspiring quote. These are not mandatory in formal correspondence.

When sending a work email, keep the signature simple. Include your full name, title, company name, and work number. The office address is admissible, but it can be left out.

If sending a formal email via a personal address, you may add the link to your LinkedIn profile or website to your signature. It is just one short line anyway, and a subtle way of igniting curiosity from the recipient about your professional background. Know that your email could be forwarded and other people could discover you so make sure that the information on that link is something you are prepared for the world to know about.

Use the schedule function

If you are the CEO or President of your company and you work during the weekends or holidays, give your staff a real break by using the send options function for non-urgent matters (for Gmail, this is the drop-down arrow on the right of the Send button). This allows you to schedule a time (i.e. Monday 9AM) when your staff will receive the email and insulates them from undue stress. I understand that this helps with not forgetting a suddenly remembered task or idea, but your staff will respond to you at 1130PM even if you say it is not urgent. I know I did in my past life. I deemed urgent anything my boss tells me to do. Schedule non-urgent emails and do not turn your staff into a human to-do list.

Replace attachments with links

If you are sending video/audio files or heavy PDFs, upload them on either Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive then send the link that your recipient can access. Doing so ensures that your email will be received right away regardless of your and your recipient’s internet bandwidth. It also prevents your recipients’ inbox from overloading, especially if like yours truly, they do not delete important mail.

Never send an angry e-mail

If you are angry, do what Abraham Lincoln was wont to do: when incensed, he writes an angry letter but does not send it. What he did have as an advantage was the luxury of slow restraint — he wrote his letters by hand.

This is not so easy to do when emotions run high and email becomes a form of release. An angry email that can be effortlessly sent can destroy relationships. The last thing you want is for evidence of your rants and bad e-mail behavior to populate the rumor mill and for you to be crucified in public.

How we communicate says so much about who we are. Take the time to do due diligence and write purposefully, no matter who the recipient is. In these hard times, add words of encouragement when appropriate. We all could use a healthy boost from the magical power of words.

Written by

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store