Avoiding Email Paralysis

Email Processes Are Indispensable to Business Communication, But They Can Create Problems.

I am not a Luddite who opposes email and computer technology. Email processes are indispensable to business communication, but they can create more problems than they solve if they aren’t managed well.

For instance, we shouldn’t use email in situations that require sensitive human interaction like announcing layoffs; and email is problematic for projects like event planning that require complex exchanges of information and consensus formation. The former is unprofessional, and the latter can spread out a 50-minute conversation over five weeks.

My main objection to sloppy email practices is casual use of internal email lists. Most companies have computer-generated lists of all employees or all employees in categories of exempt, non-exempt, etc. In worst case scenarios, anyone in the system can choose to send an email to everyone on an entire list.

Reply to All

Some employees will send an email to a list of hundreds of other employees to save themselves the trouble of typing in a dozen names. Then when their intended recipients respond, they hit reply to all and resend to the entire list.

Some businesses control access to the internal email list, but allow it to be used for general announcements. This is also a problem. A loosely defined announcement requirement might allow for emails like “Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” “Did anyone lose keys in the parking lot,” and “Here’s an article we should all read.”

This problem reaches the heights of absurdity in large corporations with offices in several states. In a communication audit I did for a bank conglomerate, a woman working in Detroit reported getting an email about cake being served in a conference room somewhere in California.

Where I work, I get announcements about the lunch menu, elevator maintenance and every kind of workshop imaginable. I don’t eat on campus, I take the stairs for exercise, and in 30 years I have never attended one of our workshops. When I asked to be removed from these lists, I was told they were using the “All Staff” email list and they couldn’t edit it.

This isn’t just an annoyance for the individual, it is a costly problem for the company. It takes time to sort through 100 emails to get to the 10 that you really need to read. Add up the time you spent today deleting junk internal email and times that by the number of people in your organization, times 300 for the approximate work days in the year, times the minimum wage, and you will get a rough idea of what this seemingly insignificant indulgence costs.

Simple Solution

The simple solution is no lists. If someone wants to reach 75 employees, then he or she types in 75 email addresses. That sounds wasteful, but it is a lot less wasteful than making 750 people read and delete the email. Once the list has been used, it can be reused. If the sender gets a reply from someone who wants off the list, no problem: highlight and delete. The list becomes 74.

A better solution is internal email software that works like external email software. You can send the first email to everyone on a large list, but there is an “unsubscribe” tab at the bottom. Clicking “unsubscribe” automatically removes someone from the list. After two or three mailings only those who wish to receive the email are getting it.

For the record, I am not against email and computers. The Luddites opposed the use of machinery in the English textile industry. They are named after Ned Ludd who supposedly destroyed two stocking frames in 1779. The movement spread to other industries and was last heard of in 1830 when agricultural workers destroyed threshing machines.

I wouldn’t mind sponsoring a movement to return as much as possible to face-to-face communication, but please, I don’t want to hear about Roachites busting up computers!

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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