In Parts 1 through 3 of this series on effective communication with remote colleagues, I looked at our preferred scenarios and best practices for instant messaging, video conferencing, and phone meetings. This week, I’m sharing some thoughts about one more important medium.
It seems like all modern desk workers love to complain about how much email they get, and what a pain in the neck it is. And it’s true: it’s easy to start feeling buried by your inbox. At SVDS, we’ve managed to cut down on the email quicksand a bit by doing most of our communicating in other mediums — mostly Slack.
Still, sometimes email really is the best method of communication. Here’s how we try to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high.
When to use it
When time is not too pressing. One of the things we frequently remind our clients is that, “If you can’t take real-time action, then you don’t need real-time data.” This is as true for small, human-scale projects as it is for giant, enterprise-scale systems. If you don’t require a response in the next 24 hours, or if someone is out on vacation, then don’t bother them with one of the more real-time or notification-heavy mediums. Just send mail.
When the subject requires context or backstory. If you’re going to write more than a paragraph or two, do it in email: it’s the one medium in which you can’t be interrupted mid-way through a narrative. Whether or not everyone will actually read the whole thing is a separate issue — read on for best practices to address it.
When you want to maintain a tight discussion thread. IM and other mediums are subject to more tangential digressions than email — not that folks can’t go off topic in email, just that it happens less easily. If you need to have a discussion in a group of several people and you want to keep it on track (especially if that discussion is likely to happen asynchronously or over a period of hours or days), then email can be great.
A few best practices
Be specific about what you need at the top of the message. It’s tempting to provide all the context first, but making someone read four paragraphs of backstory only to discover that you just need some trivial piece of info from them can waste precious time and energy. Even if all that context is necessary for your recipient to provide whatever feedback you’re asking for, tell them up front both what kind of action or feedback is needed, and what the timeframe is. That way they can read with your intent in mind and form an opinion as they go.
This is even more important when you’ve got a bunch of people on the thread with different action items — if you don’t spell out what you need from each person, then it’s easy for everyone to assume that someone else is going to respond to you on the group’s behalf.
Make use of filters. Everyone organizes their email a little bit differently. Our team recently had a highly amusing discussion when we realize just how differently: some of us meticulously label and categorize our messages; others of us just archive everything and rely on Gmail’s robust search feature to find what they need later on; and at least one of us keeps things tidy by storing messages in the trash (where they stay for 30 days, until they’re permanently deleted). Each of us practically had a coronary at the tale of the other one’s practices. What matters is not so much how you organize your mail, but that you find a system that works well for you and lets you do your job.
No matter what your approach, however, filters are a godsend. They can evaluate incoming messages based on a set of criteria you describe — such as subject line keyword, sender, etc. — and then take action: applying labels, if you’re the organizing type; auto-archiving, if you’re the searching type; or even moving items to the trash, if you’re the decisive type. Think of filters as your own administrative assistant, saving you from wasted time and carpal tunnel.
Make use of Google Labs tools. Gmail is already chock-full of great features, but there are even more available in the Labs tab of the Settings. One of my favorites is Canned Responses, which allows you to easily save a set of draft messages and then use them to populate new messages. You can then custom tailor each one before sending it out: hugely helpful for when you need to send a bunch of similar messages but don’t want to use bulk mail.
We’ve all forgotten to include the attachment, or accidentally sent an email we meant to save as a draft. These mistakes can cause a flurry of follow-up messages that only add more volume to everyone’s inbox. Save yourself from this awful fate by making use of Undo Send (which used to be a Labs tool but has now been promoted to the main Settings). It adds a window of 5–30 seconds (your choice) between when you click “Send” and when the message actually leaves, allowing you to “undo” your send in that window and make additional changes if needed.
Definitely spend some time poking around the different options in both Settings and Labs: there are lots of hidden gems to help optimize your preferred workflow.
Don’t be cute or clever with your text styles. This is a bit of a personal plea from a design-minded communicator. I know you think that blue looks like pen ink and red grabs people’s attention; that you like how friendly Comic Sans feels; and that you think using 24pt type will make your message easier to read. I don’t care. I beg you, don’t do it. Set your default text style to black type on a white background, use a standard sans serif web font like Arial or Verdana, and stick with a reasonable point size: the one Google calls “Normal” is just fine.
I know you want your message to stand out in the sea of other emails your recipients are handling, but this isn’t the way to do it. Rather, make your email stand out by including the need-to-know information at the top and judiciously judging the right use cases for the medium. Hint: if you’re trying to use unique type styles to make your message stand out because it’s truly important or time-sensitive, you should really be using another medium like instant messaging or a phone meeting instead.
It’s easy to drown in an inbox of poorly written and formatted emails, but by saving this medium for the right use cases and making use of the above best practices, it is possible to cut out a lot of the noise. Leave me a comment and tell me how you use email — or any of the other media I’ve discussed in this series — and what your best practices are.
Communicating well is difficult, even in person. That process of transmitting ideas and information from one person’s brain into another’s — past all the filters of culture or subculture, personality, mood, and whatever else is in the way — is full of pitfalls and dragons. When you add the obstacle of distance, it becomes even harder. But there are so many advantages to remote work, both for remoties and their office-based colleagues, that it’s worth it to become adept at surmounting these obstacles. Modern tools can help, and so can conscientious observation of best practices — and just plain practice.