What does it really mean to be productive with email, and how can you maximize your team’s email productivity?
In this post, I’d like to take a thorough look at the productivity effects email can have, including how it can be used most efficiently, why and how it’s used incorrectly, and how it can illustrate productivity problems that exist in other working areas.
Following are the three elements of email productivity that need to be monitored, why they’re important, and how they can be improved to maximize email productivity. You’ll learn about checking email productivity, the relationship between email and productivity, productivity lost through email, and email productivity hacks you can use to improve your organizational efficiency.
1. Email Productivity: Measuring Email Effectiveness
Email effectiveness is a general term for how a specific email is able to accomplish a goal.
Sometimes, this comes down to simply having a goal in the first place, as some emails are sent with no clear intention other than to communicate for the sake of communicating. Unfortunately, “effectiveness” can’t be reduced to any single variable or mode of understanding; instead, it’s a collection of different factors that determine whether or not a message achieves what it was meant to achieve.
Why it’s important
Optimizing your email effectiveness, organization-wide, is crucial if you want to keep operating smoothly. These are just a few of the reasons why:
- It prevents miscommunications. Miscommunications are notoriously common over email, in part because the written, digital nature of the medium eliminates the subtleties of body language and intonation that add to participant understanding, and in part because there’s no chance for dialogue. But these are merely obstacles, not death sentences for the medium.There are strengths and weaknesses to any mode of communication, but you have to know what they are if you’re going to be effective in circumventing them. Optimizing your email’s effectiveness by making sure you have a clear goal and a path to achieving that goal with every message, can help you prevent these miscommunications proactively, saving you time and stress as you collaborate on various projects.
(Image Source: Pinterest)
- It keeps individuals on task. Email effectiveness also helps ensure that your employees stay on task as much as possible. Most people write off email as a secondary task (and in a way, it is), so they don’t include it when estimating the time they spend in a day or consider it a main part of their job.However, writing and reading emails take up hours of employee time every day. If your workers are writing emails that don’t need to be written, or if they’re reading and re-reading emails that are difficult to understand, they’re wasting time away from the tasks that matter most. If your team has trouble with time management, be sure to check out our post on time management skills!
- It reduces back-and-forth. Email isn’t meant to be a chatting platform; for that, you have SMS text or IM platforms like Google Chat, Slack, or Skype. Instead, it’s meant for longer, more important messages (as a general rule).You can still have conversation threads and group messages, but this isn’t what makes email special—in fact, over-relying on these modes can be distracting, and veer participants away from the main point of the original message.Optimizing message effectiveness helps reduce this back-and-forth game, keeping messages concise and pointed to avoid roping other participants into an endless series of messages.
How it can be improved
Knowing the importance of email effectiveness, there are a handful of key dimensions you’ll need to work on as a group if you spot a problem here:
- Clarity. First, your emails need to have clarity, and focus is an important element of that. To begin, all of your emails should have a clear, easy-to-identify point. Why is this email being sent in the first place? What’s the goal this email is trying to achieve?This should be bluntly included in the subject line of the message. Beyond that, the body of the email needs to clearly execute this goal, and describe the mechanisms needed to get there.For example, if your goal is to brief someone on an upcoming project, make sure you’re using clear, precise language to outline the scope and leave no ambiguity for what your recipient is supposed to do next.
- Conciseness. Emails also need to be concise, as this is a key characteristic of the medium. In-person meetings and conversations are open-ended, giving them more flexibility, and if you have extensive findings to report, you can include them in a formal, separate document.If you’re relying on email, you need to work on conveying your message as succinctly as possible. The shorter your message is, the less time you’ll spend writing it, the less time your recipients will spend reading it, and the fewer opportunities you’ll have for misinterpretation.
- Structure. The content of your email is important, but its structure and organization is just as important. Think of your email’s structure as a guiding mechanism for your readers to follow; if you include the right content in the right format, users will be able to understand it easier.For example, it’s often helpful to include a brief opening to introduce your idea before delving into the details, and include a summarizing conclusion that also recaps any action items. Making your email more visually accessible, through the use of segmented paragraphs, bullet points, and numbered lists can also help users understand it better and spend less time reading and internalizing it.
2. Email Productivity: Measuring the Value of an Email
It’s also important to take a look at the value of an email, as some emails are worth more than others. Some emails, for example, initiate new projects with complete sets of instructions, while other emails provide no new meaningful information; if these two emails take the same amount of time to write, send, and read, one is clearly improving your email productivity, while the other is decreasing it.
In a sense, email value is all about answering the question: is this email worth writing and sending? The goal, of course, is being to reduce the number of unnecessary emails going back and forth in your organization.
Why it’s important
Email’s something of a fast and loose platform, so why bother trying to censor yourself in the first place? Is it really worth the extra effort to try and judge every email’s value before drafting and sending it? Here’s why it’s important:
- Reducing needless communication. It seems obvious, but reducing the total number of emails reduces the total amount of unnecessary communication occurring in your organization. This is going to have two major effects. First, you’ll reduce the amount of time your workers spend on reading emails, freeing them up to spend more time on the emails that actually matter or tasks more important than email.Second, every new communication is an opportunity for miscommunication, which can tie workers up in unnecessary work or produce more problems you’ll then have to solve. Reducing the number of communication instances is a way of indirectly reducing miscommunications.
- Measuring individual impact. Evaluating the value of various emails is also a way to measure individuals’ impact. In every organization, there will be a range of employees, the best of whom only use email when it’s necessary, and the worst of whom use email with wanton disregard for efficiency.Calculating email value among these groups will allow you to separate out the efficient emailers from the inefficient emailers, helping your corral the problem and focus resources on getting your weakest links up to speed with email best practices.
- Evaluating ROI. Finally, determining the value of your emails can help you calculate and improve the ROI of your sales and marketing efforts. For example, if your salespeople are throwing out valueless emails to clients and prospective clients, they’re essentially wasting time that could be spent looking for new leads, or doing research to fuel a message that’s more meaningful.Every unimportant email that’s sent from the sales team decreases your potential return and increases your investment in the time your salespeople are spending. There’s no need to be cutthroat here, eliminating every word that doesn’t matter, but as a general guide, prioritizing email value can lead you to higher ROI in your customer acquisition campaigns.
How it can be improved
By now, you know email value should be optimized in your organization, but how exactly can you do this?
- Use the right communication mediums. One of the most straightforward ways to improve email value is to integrate different communication mediums into your regular work routines, and leave email for what it does best.For example, you could roll out a chat platform like Slack or Skype and train your employees on best practices for their use (such as quick questions, conversations, and group messages). This produces a better outlet for messages that would otherwise be inappropriately sent over email, and helps people better understand the nature of their communications in general. On both fronts, the average value of your exchanged messages should increase.
(Image Source: Slack)
- Optimize sent messages. Next, you’ll need to work on optimizing the messages your workers are sending to each other. For this, you may need to lead a training session or otherwise make sure all your employees have access to this information.
Explain what an email needs to be valuable; for example, it must have a goal or intended effect, it must carry information, and it must lead into a desired action or outcome, and while it can be open to responses and conversation, its main goal is to inform. Keeping your employees in compliance here will increase the value of your average emails.
- Optimize inbound messages. Of course, your internally-sent emails aren’t the only ones that your employees are receiving and reading. They’re also getting messages from tons of outside sources, such as from vendors and clients and from other companies looking to promote themselves.These low-value emails can interfere with your workers’ focus and productivity too, so you’ll need to find a way to optimize them as well. The best way to start here is telling your employees to unsubscribe from any promotional emails or lists they’ve been conscripted into.
3. Email Productivity: Measuring The Time Email Requires
You can also take a look at the amount of time your employees are spending on email in general. Though email effectiveness and email value can both have an effect on this (for example, ineffective, non-valuable emails can increase the time a person spends reading emails), it should be treated as a separate category.
Looking at how long it takes your employees to draft and send emails is just as important as how much time they spend reading them.
Why it’s important
The more time your employees spend on email, the less time they’ll be able to spend on other, more productive tasks. You don’t want your employees to rush through their emails either, though.
In a sense, this creates an inverse relationship; you’ll need to strike a careful balance between the amount of time your employees spend writing emails and the amount of time it takes to read and interpret them among other parties. Still, if you can train your workforce to conceptualize and draft emails a little bit faster without sacrificing quality, you’ll end up getting far more done in less time — especially if you familiarize yourself on how to make Gmail faster so your employees spend less time waiting and more time working.
How it can be improved
It’s tricky, but not impossible to improve this dimension of email productivity statistics. These are three of the ways you can do it:
- Conduct writing workshops. First, you can host internal writing workshops. Get your team together for an hour, and go over the main qualities that make an email effective (clarity, conciseness, and structure), and focus on key strategies that enable you to flesh out these qualities in a yet-unwritten email.Propose hypothetical scenarios, such as sending an update email to a supervisor on a given project, and have your team members go through the drafting process. Here, you’ll be able to see inefficiencies that hold your team members back, and give strategies that the entire group can use to overcome them.
- Implement client and partner improvements. Though it has no bearing on how you write your own emails, the emails you’re being sent from your clients and partners can have a massive effect on the amount of time your workers are spending on emails.For example, you might have one client in your portfolio who sends many emails a day, forcing your account representative to spend a disproportionate amount of his/her time reading and responding to them. In some cases, this can be corrected with a simple conversation that sets a standard for effective communication, but in extreme cases, you may consider ending relationships with clients and partners who are eating up too much of your employees’ time.
How to Use Email as a Workload Gauge
The preceding three elements of email productivity I’ve discussed have been about using email to maximize productivity, or change the way you use email for some kind of benefit. Here, however, you’ll focus on email as a kind of diagnostic—a measure of your employees’ workloads and working habits.
The basic idea is that you’ll monitor your employees’ email habits to draw conclusions about how much work they’re doing and how that work is affecting their place in the organization.
Why it’s important
There are some benefits to workload monitoring that can’t be ignored:
- Balance your teams. Let’s say you have a team of 5 employees in one department of your organization, such as in marketing. Each of these team members have similar skillsets and overlapping responsibilities, but upon monitoring their email activity, you find that 2 of them seem to be sending emails far more frequently than the average worker in your organization, and the other 3 are exchanging fewer emails.Unless there are some non-email-related responsibilities complicating the equation, it becomes clear that your group of 2 is overworked while your group of 3 is underworked. If you can identify this proactively, you can rebalance those workloads more appropriately.
- Individual challenges. You can also use this kind of workload monitoring to find and address weak spots or challenges for individuals. For example, if you find that one of your employees has an inbox that’s perpetually growing, you’ll learn they have issues managing and organizing their emails.
You can respond to this and work with them to find a system of management that works better for both of you. You may also find that some of your workers are dealing with higher-than-average email loads that can’t easily be rebalanced; if this is the case, you can work with them to identify the roots of the problem and build strategies to address it.
- Performance and productivity. Of course, there’s also the benefit of improving personal performance and productivity. For example, when attempting to figure out how much work an employee is doing, you may find that he/she doesn’t respond to emails in a timely or consistent manner, leaving some emails completely unaddressed and others left hanging for days at a time.This inaction is clearly a problem that could affect your relationship with your clients, and should be addressed as early as possible.In some cases, you may find that employee email habits are egregious to the point that it demonstrates a clear lack of motivation to do a job well; in these cases, email monitoring may help you to decide on an appropriate course forward.
Monitoring Email Workload: Visualizing Ebb and Flow
There’s another way email monitoring can help you draw conclusions about your organization’s email productivity; you can gain insight into the ebb and flow of work as it occurs on an organizational level. Almost every business in every industry has some kind of busy season, with some examples more prominent than others.
For example, retailers are plainly aware that November and December will be their busiest and most significant months of the year due to holiday shopping, but a B2B enterprise may not realize that they tend to make more sales earlier in the month, or that most customer communication happens on a Monday or Tuesday.
With email data visualization tools, similar to other business analytics tools, it’s possible to learn how this ebb and flow applies to the email workload of your employees.
So what kinds of takeaways can you get from understanding this ebb and flow?
- Understand busy periods. First, you’ll gain a better understanding of your company’s busy periods. As I demonstrated, it’s possible that you don’t even know when your busy periods are—or if you have them in the first place. It’s important to keep an open mind here, as your assumptions may not be wholly true.
- Optimize schedules. You can also use this data to optimize your employee scheduling, and in a few different ways. For example, during days or periods where you’re exchanging emails the most, you could hire short-term or temporary staff members to help fill in the gaps, such as additional salespeople to help your workers shoulder the burden.You could also identify slow periods, and allow more flexibility there, such as giving your workers more work-from-home days or more flexibility in their hours worked. It’s up to you how you want to respond to busy periods, but it’s a good idea to adapt in some way.
- Improving other email issues. The ebb and flow of work, as demonstrated in email frequency, may be affecting other areas of your email productivity as an organization.For example, during periods of increased business, you may find that your workers are less capable of writing emails effectively because they’re so stressed out from the extra work. If they’re forced to send emails rapid-fire throughout the day, the average quality of their messages may decline.To address this, you’ll need to identify the main sources of the problem; are you too short-staffed to reasonably handle the changing flow? Are some of your workers suffering from the changes more than others? Be sure to check out our post on how to manage email overload at work for help here.
These are the most important dimensions of email productivity you’ll need to consider if you want to maximize your communicative effectiveness as a group. But how and where do you get the insights necessary to make decisions that can impact your team’s email productivity? Why, you can use EmailAnalytics, of course!
EmailAnalytics is a simple, easy email productivity tool that visualizes your email activity (and that of your employees), designed for individuals or entire teams. Whether you’re looking to gain insight on how you use email, or you’re looking to gain insight on the email productivity of your team or employees, give us a try and start visualizing your email productivity.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.