Do you recall sending your first email?
Perhaps you were one of the earliest adopters, using America Online to send your first email in the early 1990s. Perhaps you were like me, using Hotmail (username redhott818) to send your first message after the service began in 1996. Or perhaps you've always been a Gmail person, sending your first email sometime after Google's 2007 public launch.
As is the case with most technology, email's impact on the workplace draws mixed reviews. When used properly, email increases workplace efficiency, provides a running record of communication, and keeps employees connected. When misused, email stifles employee productivity, produces underlying stress, and undermines organizational health.
Email was intended to make our work lives easier.
Whether or not that is the case … well that’s debatable.
You've got mail.
Let’s be honest: email has completely transformed the workplace.
Before email, communication relied heavily on written memos, phone calls, and face-to-face interactions. Information dissemination took more time, and collaboration opportunities were more limited.
With email, leaders can very quickly and easily stay in contact with employees. Email allows leaders to disseminate information, provide updates, coordinate schedules, and organize meetings with the push of a button.
Email has improved the decision-making process. Email allows leaders to gather input, engage in dialogue, and quickly announce decisions. And during times of crisis, leaders are able to quickly share updates with large numbers of individuals.
Furthermore, email has improved communication with parents and external stakeholders. Email allows leaders to share news, celebrate achievements, and address concerns with individuals who are not physically present on their campus.
In addition to all of the typical benefits, email offers two "under-the-radar" benefits for leaders: keeping documentation and respecting people's time.
First, email generates documentation. How many times have you given staff verbal directives only to realize those requests remain unfinished several days later? Or, how many times have you shared instructions during a faculty meeting but later discover staff did not follow directions? Unfortunately, lack of employee follow-through plagues many organizations.
Having a paper trail is critical for holding employees accountable. Instead of debating what may or may not have been said in a conversation, email provides timestamped evidence of marching orders. Shrewd bosses not only use email to efficiently communicate with large audiences, they also use email as a high leverage management tool.
Second, email is respectful of people’s time. While occasionally leaders need a quick answer, the reality is most questions do not require an immediate response. Too many leaders interrupt others with nonurgent requests that could have been conveyed through email. Although these impromptu interactions only last a few moments, over the course of the week these disruptions add up.
My assistant sits approximately 20 feet from my desk. When questions arise, it's tempting to immediately visit her with every issue. However, doing so means I selfishly interrupt her work with my personal agenda. Bosses – we are terrible at this. Rather than disturb her concentration, sending an email allows her to respond when it's convenient for her.
While there are many positives, email also has its drawbacks.
First, email has resulted in information overload. The constant stream of incoming messages can inundate employees, making it difficult to prioritize tasks effectively. While intended to improve productivity and reduce stress, it could be said that email has done the exact opposite.
This leads us to time management. The pressure to respond to emails promptly can disrupt workflow and hinder concentration on more-important tasks. Many leaders have erroneously created a culture of urgency – where employees believe they must immediately respond to emails.
Cybersecurity is also worth mentioning. Email has become a prime target for phishing attacks, exposing schools to data breaches and compromising sensitive information. These attacks have forced entire school districts to shut down, and figure to be more prevalent in the future.
However, the biggest headache of email is miscommunication. Email can become incredibly toxic when it is not properly managed. The absence of nonverbal cues and tone in written text can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and strained professional relationships.
Have you ever received an that immediately rubs you the wrong way? Let's be honest - we've all been there:
A coworker blames you for a mistake.
A parent disagrees with your decision.
A supervisor criticizes your thinking.
A direct report denies your request.
Upon reading these emails, our heart rates rise, our muscles stiffen, and our blood boils. Our natural reaction is to immediately fire back with a scathing response pointing out why they are wrong.
For example, a few years ago a parent emailed me asking why I hadn't gotten back to an email they had sent three days prior. Almost immediately, I took offense to the message. "If you think you know how to do my job ... then go ahead!"
I spent the next 60 minutes typing out (what I believed was) a perfectly calibrated response explaining why I had yet to provide a response, while also reminding the parent of other "urgent" tasks consuming my time.
It took five minutes after pressing "send" to realize I should have stepped away from the email to let my emotions cool before responding. Not only would a phone call to the parent have been more appropriate, the stress it caused to write the email drained my body of precious energy needed to perform my job at a high level.
Unfortunately, using email to attack others has become commonplace in today's schools. Angry exchanges can erode workplace culture by fostering hostility and creating a toxic atmosphere of mistrust among colleagues.
Looking to up your email game? Here are nine ideas to consider:
Guidelines: Many employees don’t know how to use email appropriately. Rather wait for issues to occur, leaders should facilitate a conversation where guidelines are discussed. Topics could include appropriate interactions with colleagues, open records laws for public employees, and expectations for emailing after work hours.
Courage: One rule of thumb I recommend for leaders is that all difficult conversations must happen in person rather than through email. While they require courage, delivering information that the recipient will not like hearing is always better delivered in person than through written text.
Address Offenders: Every school has individuals who show a pattern of sending emails that attack and antagonize others. Leaders who want to maintain a positive culture must be willing to address these individuals, providing specific examples of their offenses while explaining that their behavior will no longer be tolerated.
Disconnect: Many school leaders believe they must always check and respond to work email outside work hours. This is silly. I recommend leaders actually delete the email app from their phone and only check email from their laptop. Deleting Gmail from my phone in 2016 was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Permission: Similar to their leaders, school staff also believe they must constantly be tethered to their inbox. And we wonder why our employees burn out so quickly. Leaders must consistently remind staff that they have permission to disconnect from work - and, in the case of a rare emergency - they will be contacted by phone.
Positive: As an administrator, your email communication sets the tone for the entire building. Leaders who want to promote a positive environment should always strive for upbeat and supportive communication, assuming positive intent with their messaging while providing encouragement whenever possible.
Concise: If you’ve ever received a super long email, you know how deflating the feeling can be. Concise emails improve message clarity and enhance the likelihood of the message being read and acted upon. Furthermore, use spacing, bullets, and varied text (e.g., bold, underline) to increase the readability of your message.
Reply All: Strategically using “reply all” option can be a highly effective tool when it comes to promoting a culture of transparent communication and inclusivity. Reply all ensures that all relevant stakeholders stay informed and reduces the need for duplicated messages.
Inbox Cleanse: One last psychological trick for email is the good ole inbox cleanse. Seeing an inbox full of emails creates underlying anxiety and stress. To address this issue, leaders should set time aside to delete or archive all inactive messages while acting on all other dormant emails.
When I was young my dad once said, "The older you get, the less fun it is to receive mail."
I had never thought about mail this way. As a kid, getting mail (aka snail mail) was enjoyable. Whether it was a birthday card from Grandma, or the newest issue of Sports Illustrated, I was always eager to open the mailbox.
However, as we age, mail is mostly bills, notices, and junk.
The same thing could be said for email. During my redhott818 days, new email was met with anticipation. Whether it was a message from my girlfriend, or a trade request in fantasy football, email was exciting.
However, as we get older, email is mostly questions, issues, and ... junk.
Let's flip the script on email.
Rather than allow email to complicate the workplace, school leaders must take steps to ensure email does what it was intended to do – make life easier.