Sunday 27 December 2015

Putting email in its place

How it’s grown

We’ve just got back from a week away. We had Wi-Fi in the place where we stayed but didn’t check on Christmas Day nor on the way home. My husband looked at his inbox this morning and had 105 messages. And that’s just his personal account. We’re both off work for two weeks and goodness knows what we’ll find in our work accounts when we return on 4 January.
Interestingly we had far less snailmail than we used to have as little as two years ago and there was very little junk mail. Our spam filters work well and get rid of most of the junk email. We have opted for most bills and invoices to be sent electronically but that only explains the increase partially.
My husband found only one important message though the rest of them were useful and interesting.
For me the main use of being on leave is to get away from the bombardment of it all anyway.

Servant not master

Email is there to serve us, not to be our master. Much of the time it represents other people’s agendas. “Don’t switch on your email until you have done an hour of other work first,” suggested our HR business partner. Good advice. I’d go even further, however, and say that do two hours of other work first.
Sometimes email is used for emergencies. If you really can’t find another way of communicating urgent messages – what about texting, instant messaging, mobile phones – the trick is to switch it on but ignore anything that isn’t urgent. That’s not easy but it can be done.    

Psychological trick

Not checking regularly can have a draw-back. You are left wondering what is waiting. True, as a programme leader, I often have a few emails from colleagues and students alerting me to problems that are not easy to solve. It’s important to remember that those problems would exist even if we didn’t have email and that in fact the email warns us of them sooner rather than later and this means that we’re dealing with the problem sooner. The problem is the problem not the email itself.  
Sometimes a colleague sends you something asking you to do more work. Often work is necessary but perhaps not immediately and it may be less important than some other work you’re already doing. Just take care to assign its own place and set up a routine that means you’ll deal with it in a timely way.
If you analyse the proportion of tricky and urgent emails to others you will see that they are the minority though may take more of your time. The rest are useful, interesting, possibly ones that you don’t have time for now and often very encouraging ones.
We need to train ourselves to relish opening our mail boxes, not dreading it.

Full mailboxes

Yes this is a common problem. Mine was full the other day.  One student had sent me the same email three times with huge pictures attached. They were too big to be submitted as part of an assignment via our virtual learning environment (VLE). We asked her to resize, I double-deleted her email and we were in business again. Yes, we need to keep copies of lots of things but with some discipline this can be come manageable. Below, I’ll describe a routine I find useful.      

Try face-to-face

Emails have the advantage of being quick and can be sent at a time that suits you. They have the disadvantages that nuance and sub-text are lost and the exchange actually takes longer to complete the discussion. There is little point in emailing someone who is working just down the corridor unless you need to send them a lot of content - e.g. graphs, figures and big documents. Even if you do need to send the later, use the email for that and have the conversation face-to-face. Walking across the car park with someone the other day saved me half an hour of email exchanges.

Routine and discipline

I have found a routine that works for me. I complete any core business of the day – make urgent phone calls or prepare for tomorrow’s teaching, meetings or training courses for example before I go to my email.  I then work through everything back to the start of the day before and anything before that that I can now delete, file or action. Each email gets deleted or filed into a folder. I’ll then go through my sent folder and file any that need keeping into the appropriate folder and delete the rest. Occasionally I’ll leave something in the inbox or sent box because I don’t need to keep it forever but I do want it for a while. Then I’ll delete the deleted folder.
At the beginning of each calendar year I delete any emails that are over five years old.
Occasionally the Inbox still fills. I can then quite safely sort the inbox oldest first and delete a month’s worth of emails.
Occasionally if I’m very busy, for example when the marking’s in, I might only answer urgent ones and may put an automatic reply on to that effect. Sometimes, the non-urgent problems have solved themselves by the time I get to them.

Some Local netiquette

Copy and reply

It’s good to get into the habit of distinguishing between who you want to receive the email and who you just want to see a copy of it.  For the latter you should address them on the cc or bcc line. You don’t expect a reply though a reply is allowed. Likewise, you’re not expected to reply if you’re cc’d or bcc’d. You can of course and you may or may not feel you need to keep a copy of that mail.
Think carefully about whom you copy in.  Does this person really need to be involved at this point? If we’re all careful about this, then it becomes safe to assume that if your cc’d, the sender really wanted you to know about this matter.

Reply all

It’s tempting to reply all to general messages so that your colleagues can see what you think. But ask yourself each time is this really necessary for everybody on the list to see your response or does only the sender need to know?  Or possibly just a few people on the list?

All hours of the night and day

Whilst it’s perfectly possible to send emails at 2.00 a.m. and our students certainly do, we should really not expect our colleagues to be working at that time or to reply at that time. If I’ve not managed my sweep before the evening I’ll do it then, or if I suddenly think of something I may send an email on a Sunday afternoon, but I’m not expecting a reply then, nor do I expect my colleague to work at that time even if they can’t fit everything into what might be described as a normal working week. If I work “out of hours” I’m not expecting my colleague to. I also expect them to extend me the same courtesy. Craftily, we can send emails “out of hours” via our VLE so don’t have to open the Pandora’s Box that is the inbox.   

Managing student expectation

No, we are not at our desks 24/7. In fact, we’re expected to answer email within three working days, normally. That might mean if something else is pressing – a conference, marking, a heavy teaching load – it might take longer. Most of the time, we answer within two working days. Sometimes we answer straight away. However, the latter cannot become the norm. We certainly can’t be answering emails whilst we’re eating, shopping, spending time with our families, teaching or doing other work for the university.    
Often students can find the information they seek another way:
·         Consulting their VLE
·         Visiting us during our office hours
·         Setting up a meeting or phone call for another time.
It’s quite interesting, too, how long it takes our students sometimes to respond to the emails we send them.  

In the end, though, email is a very useful tool, and if managed sensibly can be of good service to us.  

No comments:

Post a Comment