These are the types of emails that send me spiraling like Ron Swanson from the hit series Parks and Recreation:
Maybe this example is exaggerated, but you get the point.
I searched high and low for recent statistics on the number of emails the average knowledge worker receives daily, and I kept running into a McKinsey study from 2012. At the time, McKinsey reported that knowledge workers spent 28 hours each week writing emails, searching for information, and collaborating internally.
I can only imagine how much that number has increased due to the pandemic and new hybrid and remote ways of working. (We’re so busy writing and sending emails that we don’t have time to capture how many!)
In this punchy guide, we’ll teach you:
- Common problems with email communication (so you can avoid them)
- Best practices for effective email communication in the workplace
- How to use email components (and why they matter)
- The pros and cons of using AI to write emails
- How to streamline email management via time-blocking
Problems with email communication
There’s no doubt that email communication is a staple of modern business communication (especially for knowledge workers). It’s an essential vehicle, especially for internal communication, but it has its fair share of challenges. While we certainly can’t live without it, below are some common problems with email communication in the workplace and some tips for avoiding them.
1. Emails open up the door to information overload
Our inboxes are packed to the brim! They’re full of important messages, status updates for awareness, company news, team emails, project details, and an occasional spam message from a CEO impersonator. We receive emails at occasionally nauseating volumes, which makes it easy to delete accidentally, forget about, and lose track of the emails that truly matter.
Not to mention that sorting through emails to find what you need can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Email after email and straw after straw, managing and sorting through your inbox can become an arduous and frustrating task. Too many emails are distracting and hurt our productivity.
Pro-tip: Don’t default to email for all of your communication. And don’t be a pest to your coworkers, either. Pause and ask yourself whether your message or update warrants an email or if it would be better to serve it via another communication method. Check out these questions to guide your thought process.
2. They are subject to interpretation (and miscommunication)
While emails provide a convenient means of written communication and can help you get your message across, the absence of tone, body language, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues leaves plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings and individual interpretation. Generational email differences, the reader’s mood, personal experiences, and many more factors can lead to unintended consequences. For example, using a period instead of an exclamation point might leave some readers feeling like a sender’s email was cold and aggressive.
Pro-tip: Embrace that interpretation and miscommunication will likely happen when sending emails. Use clear email subject lines, clearly articulate your message, and use a professional tone. Be mindful of generational and cultural differences. When a misinterpretation occurs, talk it out! Follow up with a phone call or meet virtually or face-to-face in person to hear each other out.
3. Response times can be problematic
Email is a great asynchronous communication method, but it can be problematic in the workplace due to its async nature. Unlike real-time conversations, email allows receivers to respond at their convenience. This can be particularly challenging when you’re working on a time-sensitive matter or need your team to decide quickly. Sometimes, email isn’t the best communication vehicle; there’s nothing wrong with that.
Pro-tip: Set clear expectations regarding response times in your email. Bold it, highlight it, or do what you must to ensure your reader(s) understand when they must respond. I like to add response times in the subject when possible. And be smart here! Don’t use email when it doesn’t make sense. Instead, try Slack (start a huddle) or pick up the phone.
Workplace email communication best practices
Many tips, tricks, and best practices exist for writing effective business emails. A quick Google search reveals hot articles like “28 Best Practices for Email Etiquette in the Workplace” on Indeed and “Email Etiquette in the Workplace: 21 Tips to Better Communication in 2023” on Pipefy.
We could write an entire article with best practices for workplace email communication because there’s always room to improve our emails to one another. While there are many great tips, below are the “make-it-or-break-it” best practices that can completely destroy the chance of your email being effective.
1. Know the purpose of your email
The first (and most crucial step) of sending an effective email happens before you even press the “Compose” or “New Email” button. You must define and understand the purpose of your email before you write it because if you don’t understand the purpose of your email, they (your readers) won’t either. Thomas Yuan, for G2’s Learn Hub, recommends asking yourself:
- Why am I writing this email?
- What is the core message I want to convey in this email?
- What results do I hope to get from this email?
Similarly, the Do, Say, Think, Feel approach to communication can help you better understand the impact you want to have:
- What do I want readers to do?
- What do I want them to say?
- What do I want readers to think?
- How do I want my readers to feel?
Clarifying the purpose of your email is critical to ensuring you understand the main point of your email and can then determine the best ways to get your message across.
2. Understand your audience
Who are you sending this email to? Your teammates or the C-Suite? What role are your reader(s) in? What details will they care about? What details will they not care about?
Your email isn’t for you. It’s for your readers, so you must write with them in mind. I love the Smart Brevity communication formula from Axios for considering the audience and their needs. In addition to considering the audience, it includes things like grabbing their attention, sharing new information and why it’s relevant, formatting text for scannability, and communication via short, not shallow messages.
3. Proofread your email
Proofreading is the unsung hero of communication in the workplace. Don’t be the co-worker who sends unpolished, unclear emails due to spelling and grammatical errors. (Especially embarrassing spelling errors!)
Emails riddled with typos, confusing sentences, and grammatical issues undermine your credibility, make you appear careless, and can irritate readers. You might also unintentionally muddy your email message with these mistakes. While built-in spell checkers in Gmail and Microsoft Outlook can help catch apparent errors, some great proofreading tools are available for a more comprehensive review. Tools like Grammarly help you catch typos, missing punctuation, confusing sentences, tone, clarity issues, and more.
4. Use an appropriate tone
Maintaining an appropriate and professional tone in business emails is paramount for building trusting relationships and getting your point across effectively. While “LMAO! 😂” might be right when sending a text message to your best friend, it may not be a great way to respond to your colleague’s email request.
To achieve professionalism, ensure you spell recipient’s names correctly, consider using formal greetings and sign-offs, and avoid overly casual expressions and slang when appropriate. Of course, the caveat is that slang and emojis might be appropriate in specific environments. If that’s the case for you, use emojis sparingly to ensure your reader doesn’t lose sight of the vital information.
Effectively use email components
Another excellent way to enhance your workplace emails is through email components. Below are some quick tips for effectively using email components and making the most of what’s available.
1. Add a descriptive subject
Don’t be a “(no subject)” type of sender. Clearly state the topic and purpose of your email in the subject line so recipients can quickly understand what the email is about. Use action-oriented language when it makes sense. Sometimes, I include an indicator such as “(Response Required)” so my colleagues know what I need from them.
2. Salutations and sign-offs matter
Begin your email with a courteous salutation such as, “Hi [name(s)]” or “Dear [name(s)].” At the end of the email, include a friendly sign-off, such as “All the best, [your name].” Adjust the formality based on the email contents and your relationship with the recipient. These small details add a personal touch to every professional email.
3. Use text formatting techniques in the email body
The body of your email is your time to shine! Keep it concise and get to the point quickly. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) write emails as if you’re writing the chapter of your next novel. Using short paragraphs, bullet points, headings, and bolding or highlighting important details helps your readers skim the content of the email and quickly identify what’s most important.
4. Add relevant attachments with clear names
Sometimes, you need to provide additional content and materials to support your email. Attaching relevant files and using clear file names is essential so readers know what they are looking at. Add descriptions of the attachments in the body of your email for quick reference. Most importantly, if you mention attachments in your email, don’t forget to attach them! (I love Gmail’s reminder.)
5. Use the CC and BCC fields appropriately
You should include all primary recipients who need to read your email and take action in the “To” field. The CC (carbon copy) field is useful when you want to share the email with someone who isn’t part of the primary audience but could use the information for visibility purposes. In other words, they don’t need to act, but folks in the “To” field might. The BCC (blind carbon copy) field hides recipients’ email addresses and is perfect for sending emails to large audiences or for privacy purposes.
6. And everyone’s favorite…don’t “Reply All” unless you have to
The “Reply All” email component is one of the most well-loved jokes in the email humor landscape. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a handy feature, but only when you use it properly. If you need to share your response with all recipients, use it. If you don’t, double-check that you only reply to the sender.
Image source: Reader’s Digest
Pros & cons of using AI to write emails
As with any tool or technology, there are a handful of pros and cons to consider when using AI to help you write emails in the workplace. First up, the pros:
- You’ll save time: AI generates emails quickly. The right prompting and level of information provided can save you time in your workday. For example, Grammarly’s generative AI shoots back clean and polished email drafts in seconds, allowing you to write in your voice with customizable tone, formality, and relevance options.
- AI helps reduce human errors, like typos: Drafts generated with the help of AI reduce human mistakes like typos and double periods. (You should still proofread your emails before sending them, but AI handles much of the gruntwork upfront.)
- Send more consistent emails: AI can help you maintain a consistent style and tone in your work. AI models have “context windows” that enable them to reference previous information when formulating responses. You can feed the tools emails written in your style and tone and ask it to use that information.
And some of the cons you should keep in mind:
- AI-generated emails lack authenticity and personalization: AI tools might be able to write a response for you, but these tools can’t replace you. They don’t have your experience, perception, knowledge, and personal touch to add. You have to do that piece.
- Privacy concerns: Using AI to draft emails can raise privacy concerns, especially when individuals use tools to write about confidential and sensitive information. Generally speaking, avoid putting private information into AI tools.
- Reduced creativity: There’s a lot that AI can help with, but leveraging AI-generated emails reduces creativity both in the content and across communication styles. Creating space for creative writing and unique voices in a world painted by AI is essential.
Individuals and organizations must consider the pros and cons of leveraging AI for email communication to determine if it’s a good (and safe) fit for their needs. While AI provides efficiencies and consistency across written communication, it can feel impersonal and reduce creativity. Not to mention that it’s not wise to use it when handling sensitive information.
Time blocking to streamline email management
All of these tips, tricks, and tools can help you write more effective emails and improve your writing skills, but there’s no doubt that it still requires a significant amount of time to do things (and manage your inbox, too!) Time blocking is an effective technique for streamlining email management and improving your productivity.
Try allocating blocks of time throughout your day to manage, draft, and send emails. Clockwise can set aside Focus Time—periods of uninterrupted work time—for you to tackle your email inbox. During your email time, review and prioritize emails by importance and urgency (we love the Eisenhower Matrix for this) so you can focus on critical messages first.
And occasionally, consider using your email time to unsubscribe to unwanted emails and other junk. Your future self will thank you for reducing the clutter and noise.
Cheers to better emails
Effective emails are the unsung hero of communications in the workplace. By following best practices, leveraging AI when it makes sense, and time blocking for effective email management, you can make email communication your friend instead of your foe.