The hidden costs of email

Email is free, right? Well, yes, you don’t have to use a stamp and you can send them out to hundreds of people all in the same moment for the same cost as writing to one person.

 

But there’s a hidden cost: one of these is time and the other is collateral damage. This can be measured in small but ever-enlarging tears in the social fabric of your work relationships. Once again, this will equate to time spent clarifying what was meant, following up on actions not taken and patching up holes, when you could be actually producing something.

 

The answer is to use email wisely and well, not every time you need to say something.

 

To do this you need to think about what is going on in an email. They are at their most useful when they are used to co-ordinate action by making requests. Since most of us are pretty vague, inconclusive and downright sloppy with our requests, it’s no wonder that emails can be ineffective. But that’s too big a topic for today.

 

For the moment, here are three times NOT to use email that will save you hours of aggravation and, as a happy by-product, cut down on the number of emails in everyone’s inbox.

 

1. Don’t use an email to reply to a phone call

 

If you get a call – call back. Yesterday we left a phone message in a very polite voice to ask when a payment would be received as we needed the information for cashflow planning purposes. In reply we received a very rude and abrupt email stating that the cheque was in the mail, plus five more lines of indignant blather irrelevant to the question. But it did provoke a response – three more emails at our end with a back and forth to the head office and no doubt three to the power of three emails at the other end. (I didn’t say I am perfect; I am just sharing what I am learning to do!)

 

2. Don’t use email when you are right, wrong or angry

 

Anything written in any of these emotional states will lead to further emails and fractured feelings. Whether you are feeling smug about being right; guilty or defensive about being wrong; or plain aggressive about being blamed for something; writing an email in this mood is more likely to be misinterpreted – and acted on through a barrage of emails full of hurt feelings. That or total silence.

 

I learnt this lesson the hard way and there are, hence, a couple of people I no longer speak to on account of it. I was wrong, it was cowardly and I should have got on the phone and sorted it out.

 

3. Don’t use email for anything other than clear, precise organisation of action

 

In other words, if you have opinions to share, ideas to promote, customers to persuade or gossip to spread, save it for your blog, newsletter or monthly book club or golf round.

 

Right – on that happy note, I am off to delete some rude drafts I found in my Mail that someone had composed at 2am on a very dark night.

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