The average professional spends 6 hours a day checking and writing emails.
And yet, the vast majority of businesses have no idea what’s going on in those inboxes during that time.
It’s a complete blind spot.
How do you know if your employees are spending that time productively?
In this guide, I’ll show you how to illuminate the black hole of email activity in your organization, visualize your organization’s email activity, identify problems, and fix those problems.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
- How Employees Waste Time With Email
- 1. Failing to respond in a timely manner.
- 2. Lazy responses.
- 3. Sending unnecessary emails.
- 4. Failing to send important emails.
- 5. Sending emails to too many (or incorrect) recipients.
- 6. Sending personal emails with their work email account.
- 7. Writing emails that are difficult to understand.
- 8. Failing to use text formatting when needed.
- 9. Receiving too many emails from specific contacts.
- How to Fix It
How Employees Waste Time With Email
Now let’s take a look at some of the specific ways employees waste time on email.
These items selectively target specific habits, tactics, and approaches most likely to do your organization harm:
1. Failing to respond in a timely manner.
Professionals expect fast email response times, and for good reasons:
- Slow responses can bottleneck a team collaborating on a project within an email thread, as everyone has to wait for sufficient information to proceed with their specific tasks.
- Sales representatives massively increase conversion rates the sooner they respond to new inbound leads. Every minute that ticks by without a response drops conversion rates significantly. 35-50% of sales go to the vendor that responds first, and lead conversion rate goes up by 700% if you respond within an hour.
- Customer service representatives can make customers feel much more satisfied when their support queries are responded to quickly, which increases customer loyalty, referrals, and conversion rates.
Bottom line: You need to know how quickly your employees are responding to emails they receive, on average. For sales and customer service representatives, it’s of particular importance to know how quickly they respond to any new thread, as these “first responses” are often indicative of the recipient’s first impression of dealing with a human representative from your business.
2. Lazy responses.
Your employees could also be wasting time and money if they respond lazily to emails they receive. Even if they aren’t the originators of an email thread, they should still be responsible for making sure it’s executed and managed as efficiently as possible.
There are a few ways an inappropriate response could interfere with your productivity and/or profitability:
- Insufficient responses. Lengthy emails are problematic, but short responses can also cause issues. We’ve all dealt with the person in the office who seems to only be able to respond to one question per email, even if the email contains multiple questions, right? Doing so creates more emails than necessary, due to inevitable follow-ups to extract the information needed, not to mention frustration on the part of the sender. This isn’t productive for anyone involved.
- Directional changes. Employees can also cause a disruption if they respond with a message not linked to the original thread topic. If they ask non-relevant questions, bring up information from another project, or otherwise change direction, it throws everyone in the thread off.
Bottom line: You need to know the response times of your employees to identify persistently slow-responders. Pair this information with employees who have an abnormally high ratio of received emails and slow response times, and you’ve likely identified a lazy emailer.
3. Sending unnecessary emails.
We don’t think much about how our emails affect other people, often sending them indiscriminately, but if your email doesn’t have a specific purpose, or offers redundant information, it can be a time waster.
It takes time to write and send an email, and on top of that, it takes your recipients time to read, sort, and respond to them.
If even 10 percent of emails sent aren’t necessary, your team will be spending an extra 10 percent of its communication time and money on nothing.
So what makes an email “necessary?” Ultimately, an email needs to meet 3 conditions:
- Advance a conversation. Company emails should add something new to the conversation, introducing new ideas, new information, or new perspectives.
- Be of professional importance. It should go without saying that all emails sent should also be of some professional importance. For example, they should be related to a project, task, employee, client, or other matter that involves the company’s success. Obviously, there’s some wiggle room here; having a friendly conversation or announcing that there are cupcakes in the breakroom aren’t significant detriments to productivity. But if non-professional emails become a pattern, they can be.
- Change or reinforce someone else’s actions. Emails necessarily involve two or more parties; therefore, the information in those emails should, in some way, change or reinforce someone else’s actions. For example, new instructions, reminders, or verifications are all important for other people to know.
If your employees are sending emails that don’t meet these three conditions, they’re wasting time.
Bottom line: You need to know who is sending emails, who the recipients are, and whether they advanced an initiative or bottlenecked it.
4. Failing to send important emails.
In some ways opposite, but just as bad, is a tendency for an employee to not send necessary emails. For example, they may be required to send out new project specs to the other members of their team, or they may be expected to respond to a question about their progress on a project.
At first glance, this seems counterintuitive; if an employee is spending less time reading and drafting emails, they’re spending more time on their own work. However, you have to incorporate the time they waste in other ways.
For example, if a team is not updated with the latest specs on a project, they could continue working without realizing important changes to direction. If an employee doesn’t confirm that they’ve received a message, it could result in a miscommunication or prompt the original sender to send check-ins, reminders, or follow-ups.
The catch here is that unsent emails are harder to witness and recognize. When you get a frustrating email that repeats information, you’ll notice it almost immediately. When you don’t get an email that you probably should have, you won’t know until long after you should have received it.
Fortunately, you can use secondary indicators to figure out which employees are most likely to engage in this bad habit; if you notice an employee is sending far fewer emails than their close peers, they may be bottlenecking the communication of the entire team.
Bottom line: You need to know the volume of emails being sent and received by each of your employees. Employees sending a significantly lower volume than the rest could be bottlenecking your team.
5. Sending emails to too many (or incorrect) recipients.
Another potential issue is one that can stand by itself or complicate other known issues: sending emails to too many recipients.
There are a few problems here:
- Wrong or unnecessary readers. The main problem here is that whoever receives the email and doesn’t need to read it will waste their time reading it. They may wade through paragraphs before realizing the email has no action items for them to take on. Even worse, they may mistakenly believe they need to take action when they don’t, and spend time doing work they never needed to do in the first place.
- Multiplication of attention. Next, remember that the total time (and therefore money) an email takes will be multiplied by the number of people reading it. Every person in the chain magnifies the cost of the email, so it’s in your best interest to keep things clean.
- Increased thread complexity. Opening the door to more recipients also opens the door to more replies. In many cases, this means the thread will become significantly longer, disorganized, and more complex, especially if it’s a topic that requires discussion. If you truly need to have several people involved in a discussion, a meeting is preferable to an email chain, where responses can easily get lost or out of order.
In general, you only want to send emails to the people who need to read them.
It’s tempting to CC more as a measure of caution—after all, it only takes one click, and you can safeguard yourself against anyone you forgot.
But if your employees habitually include more people than they should, they’ll waste the time of everyone on that thread.
Bottom line: You need to know what email threads are happening within your organization, who the participants on those threads are, and what the participation levels of those threads looks like. People involved on a thread who are not participating in the conversation have likely been unnecessarily added, and are wasting their time following the thread.
6. Sending personal emails with their work email account.
Employees commonly send personal emails from their business email accounts, and this poses major problems – and risks – for businesses.
Employees on the clock are acting as official representatives of their business, so communication sent from the wrong email address can be taken as official communication, when it’s not intended to be.
Furthermore, this is also a common way that company computer networks become infected with malware or viruses; employees being careless about with whom they conduct email, and from what computer or email account.
Bottom line: You need to know what sources your employees are receiving emails from and sending emails to, so that you can identify non-work-related contacts.
7. Writing emails that are difficult to understand.
If your employees typically violate that format and structure, or if they don’t write in a way that’s understandable, everyone reading the email will spend more time trying to figure it out.
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- 35-50% of sales go to the first-responding vendor.
- Following up within an hour increases your chances of success by 7x.
- The average professional spends 50% of their workday on email.
There are a few key potential problems to watch for here:
- Ambiguity. Any type of ambiguity can interfere with an email’s understandability. For example, if a list of to-dos is sent to a group without specific assignees for each item, people won’t know what to take on. If it’s not clear what needs to be done next, and by whom, often nobody will respond or take responsibility. Delegation of responsibility is critical.
- Semantics. The wording and structure of your employees’ sentences can also lead to confusion. If a word is left out, or if words aren’t used properly, it will take longer for readers to get the gist of the message.
- Purpose. Sometimes, an email is clear to read on a surface level, but difficult to understand in terms of purpose. If your audience doesn’t immediately understand the action items or takeaways, the email has failed, creating time waste.
Bottom line: Since “understandability” is a subjective variable, you’ll need to watch closely for this one to develop in your employees’ habits. One indicator of this could be an abnormally high amount of emails received, coupled with an abnormally low word count per email.
8. Failing to use text formatting when needed.
If your employees’ emails aren’t scannable—in other words, if their meaning can’t be comprehended after a relatively quick glance—that efficiency will be compromised.
The more important an email is for long-term applications, the more importance its scannability will hold.
Scannable emails are important for:
- First impressions, so readers can get the high-level concept of your email before digging into specifics.
- Highlights, so you can emphasize the most important points of your email in an intuitive way.
- Future reflection, so readers can recap the conversation or thread with a minimal investment of time.
Again, a minimal investment of time here goes a long way. Your employees can make emails more scannable with features like:
- Headlines and sub-headers, which introduce sections or specific points of contact.
- Effective subject lines, which concisely explain the point of the email.
- Bullet points and lists, which make information more digestible and visually appealing.
- Bold and italics, which can emphasize certain points.
Bottom line: This is another subjective quality you’ll need to monitor over time, so don’t lose sight of it.
9. Receiving too many emails from specific contacts.
This is one problem that doesn’t necessarily arise from your employees’ habits. If their position requires them to email contacts outside the company, such as clients, vendors, or partners, there’s a chance that certain contacts will eat up a disproportionate amount of their time.
For example, if you have a particularly needy client, who asks questions and demands follow-ups on a nearly constant basis, it could distract your employee from their other work.
If you’re using EmailAnalytics to track your employees’ performance, this is a key metric to watch; if it appears they’re sending or receiving too many emails from a certain contact, it could be the starting point for a conversation.
Bottom line: You need to know what sources your employees are receiving emails from, and how many emails are being received from each source, so you can identify unnecessary emails that are eating into employees’ time.
How to Fix It
Now that you know some of the root causes of email issues, let’s discuss how to fix these problems.
It really comes down to one simple rule you’ve likely heard many times:
That which gets measured gets improved.
EmailAnalytics is designed to help you do just that. It visualizes your team’s email activity.
And we know you’re busy, so we don’t make you do any work to get the insights you need. We deliver you daily, weekly, and monthly email report summaries of your team’s metrics so you can illuminate the blind spot that is your team’s current email activity.
My team’s email report for last week, emailed right to my inbox.
Within the dashboard, you can check out a breakdown of any employee’s email activity:
You can also see email activity by labels to determine how effectively your employees are sorting through emails and organizing them:
Want to know what days of the week your employees are busiest? There’s a graph for that too:
Need to know what hours of the day a particular employee is working hardest, and when productivity starts dropping off? Here’s what that graph looks like:
Want to gauge productivity over the last few weeks to see a big-picture view of their workload? Here’s that graph:
If you have lots of employees to monitor, and you want to separate them into groups based on performance, or role, or anything else you can think of, you can do that too, by creating “teams” within the dashboard:
You can also easily monitor the time it takes, on average, for employees to respond to emails they receive.
Almost every organization will naturally lose time and money to bad email habits. The question is: what are you, as a manager, going to do about it?
How about adding some accountability for your team?
If you’re ready to start measuring your team’s email activity so you can collectively start improving it, sign up for a free 14-day trial here!
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 selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.