CEO of Making Business Matter. A soft skills training provider helping people to be the best version of themselves with Sticky Learning ®.

During stay-at-home orders, running outdoors became a popular activity for many. And as more people started to run, they likely wanted to know how well they were doing and what was possible: “How far did I run? Could I run farther next week? How could I improve?”

In the business world, I believe we could learn a few things from these runners, particularly when it comes to email. We have been using emails since the first one was sent in 1971 — 50 years ago — and ever since, many of us have failed to ask how we’re doing, what is possible or how we could improve. Emails are one of office workers’ main moans.

From my perspective, if we acknowledged how many we read and send each day, we might start to re-evaluate whether we are on the right side of productivity. It’s often said that the average office worker receives about 120 emails every day. The idea is that the more you can read, type and hit reply, the more productive you are. But I believe the link between productivity and emails has been lost.

Imagine you’re driving down the road and every few minutes an animal runs out in front of you, and each time it happens, you have to stop what you’re doing. Emails are like that animal: Throughout the workday, emails pop up, so you stop what you’re doing, read the message and decide whether it’s urgent or if you can deal with it later. Eventually, you go back to what you were originally doing, but once another email comes in, you’re back to being distracted and losing your focus.

Companies have tried to fix emails with tactics such as establishing no-email Fridays. But if we want to wrestle the email monster to the ground, we shouldn’t simply impose corporate rules. I believe for a business to get emails under control, a more thorough plan of attack is needed, and there are seven steps that can help you achieve this:

1. Create an initiative, and name it. Establish an initiative that’s aimed at reducing the number of emails your employees get distracted by each day. However, don’t simply call your plan the “email reduction program” or “email training.” In my experience, titles like these lead to many people immediately telling you they don’t think it will happen or work. Instead, I recommend using a name such as “an email experiment” to suggest that the business is exploring what’s possible and is allowing and enabling employees to choose how involved they get and what they might achieve.

2. Invite others to join. Ask disruptors and influencers in your company to join the experiment in the beginning. To identify those leaders, simply ask who wants to get involved. Who wants to lead the charge? Who is passionate about change? After all, not everyone is passionate about everything. By inviting many, you’ll find the few who can lead the way until other employees are ready to hop on board.

3. Get your data. Encourage your team to assess their email usage (there are platforms that can track this type of data if you don’t want to do this on your own), and reiterate that you are just trying to explore the art of the possible. Create a spreadsheet that you can share with them, and ask them to add their name, along with how many emails they send and read each day. They’ll likely be interested to see how they compare to their colleagues.

4. Help your team lower their numbers. In your spreadsheet, include a column labeled “target,” and ask your team to add by how much they’d like to reduce their number of sent emails. Focus on sent emails, and avoid using percentages. Instead, use a real number for your target, such as, “Reduce sent emails by 50 next month.” Percentages can lose the reality of the number of emails.

Then, set your team up for success. To get started, set an example. For instance, instead of sending many emails individually, perhaps you could group all your comments into one message, give your teammate a call or, if you’re working in an office, simply talking to your teammate in person. It’s also important to ensure you’re supporting your team by establishing some email ground rules. For example, you might explain that one-word emails of thanks are not needed across the team or that employees should share a specific deadline, rather than just saying “ASAP.”

Actions your employees can take on their own include CC’ing fewer people on each email and keeping emails succinct by limiting them to between 75 and 100 words.

5. Follow up. Each week, ask participants to share their new four-week email “sent” numbers and comment against their target. Encourage others to share the problems they’ve faced and the solutions they have found as a result. When you find what works across the team, encourage those tools and tips to be used by everyone.

6. Encourage participants to bring a plus one. Ask the participants in your group to share their email experiment with co-workers who aren’t yet involved. This will start to swell the ranks and involve more people.

7. Embrace new tools. Each time you meet, ask team members to update their email numbers on the spreadsheet, and be on the lookout for tools that are helping them. They must be simple and practical tools. Put these in a place that everyone can access, comment and build upon.

Final Thoughts

Coming back to the concept of running, one of the images we used through our email experiment was that of Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. When developing your own “email experiment,” keep in mind that you’re looking for the “Rogers” to lead and help make a change. For my business, we achieved a significant reduction in sent emails. What could your Rogers achieve for your business?


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