9 ways to manage—and cut back on—corporate email overload

Swamped? Professionals say email overload is a major problem. Here’s how to manage the flood, both in your inbox and across your organization.

When four ruffians allegedly assaulted a 17-year-old who had stood up for a girl they were harassing on a bus in Edmonton, Canada, detectives had to get up to speed quickly.

Using their iPhones or BlackBerrys in the field, Edmonton transit police and city cops were emailing location information and crime reports back and forth. Such exchanges are so vital that the communications department has stopped sending all-employee emails except in rare cases, says David Schneider, the department’s director of corporate communications.

Edmonton police are like most of us-maxed out on email, according to the survey “Email Best Practices” from Newsweaver and Ragan Communications. Eighty percent of respondents see email overload as a problem in their organization, and nearly as many (77 percent) are looking for ways to reduce the volume.

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60 percent send once a week

Amid the flood, communicators are trying to get out their own urgent messages. Nearly 60 percent of internal communicators send out official emails at least once a week, with 14 percent clicking the send button daily.

In Edmonton Police Services, which has 2,500 employees, communicators had to find other ways to get out the message through the intranet, TV screens in its 45 buildings, and information cascades through a “supervisors’ notebook” distributed orally by squad leaders.

“We don’t want to clog up people’s computers with organizational information that is less than vital,” says David Schneider, the department’s director of corporate communications and a survey respondent.

In the Ragan/Newsweaver survey, some said employees simply aren’t opening emails because there are too many of them. “No one seems to know anything, because there is so much ‘communication’ being sent via email,” one respondent stated.

Many are swamped by well-meaning colleagues. Dave Thompson, public affairs program manager with the Oregon Department of Transportation, receives 300 emails a day. “Lots are reply-all responses-something my agency’s culture embraces in the name of collaboration and shared responsibilities across functional silos,” he says.

Though nobody wants to wade through that much email, the department faces conflicting forces in dealing with the deluge.

“Everybody agrees it’s a priority,” Thompson says, “but no one does it because email is still our primary method of communicating with each other, after talking face to face.”

Have you tried to reduce it?

If it’s a problem, have you tried to reduce the amount of email that is sent within your organization? Some 77 percent of survey respondents—almost as many as noted the problem—said, “Yes.” Some report that they successfully reduced email. Try to nail them down on how much, though, and most—57 percent—can’t say.

Twenty-two percent say the amount of email down by a quarter. Six percent of organizations have cut the volume by half. A ferocious 4 percent have slashed email by more than three-quarters.

An open-ended question about the most effective tactics for reducing email drew a variety of answers. Among them were weekly newsletters, covering information in webinars and meetings, consolidating messages, and using collaboration tools.

Those who haven’t tackled the problem overwhelmingly blame a lack of priorities (80 percent). Smaller numbers clicked “lack of time” (33 percent), “lack of resources” (32 percent), and “we don’t know how” (27 percent).

Having an email policy is a huge part of tackling the problem of “inbox clutter.” However, only 62 percent answered that they have such a policy. Twenty-nine percent said no; 9 percent shrugged “I don’t know.”

Curiously, in contrast with their social media policies, only 57 percent of the biggest kids on the block—those with more than 50,000 employees—say they have such a policy. That differs little from the smallest organizations—those with fewer than 1,000 employees—where 58 percent reported having an email policy.

Asked which department enforces the policy, a plurality of respondents (26 percent) said IT is the email cop. HR served in that role in 23 percent of organizations, with corporate comms following up (19 percent).

Are you overwhelmed with email, or is your organization? Here are some tips for getting control:

1. Do, Defer, Delegate, or Delete.

After a recent vacation, Christopher Penn, vice president of marketing technology with SHIFT Communications, returned to find 1,500 messages. Three hours later, he was down to eight-and he answered my email.

How did he do it? He uses what is known as the “inbox zero” methodology: Do, Defer, Delegate, or Delete.

“First pass, I delete all the crap,” he says. “Then I do a defer/delegate pass, identifying what mail can be handled later or by someone else. Finally, I tackle the do pass, where I respond quickly to things that can appropriately have a fast response.”

2. Shift conversations to a social platform.

“Shift as many conversations as you can to a collaborative tool instead of email,” says Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology. “Internally, something like Yammer or Chatter can be more effective anyway.”

3. Don’t needlessly cc—or CYA.

“The problem isn’t the volume of email, or even the tool itself,” writes Sean Williams, owner of Communication AMMO and chair of the Public Relations Society of America Employee Communication Section. “The problem is too much Cover Your Ass…ets.”

Few, he says, think through to what they want the recipients to think, feel or do as a result of receiving the email. Instead, they fill up the “to” and “cc” lines with everyone who might be vaguely interested. That means too much irrelevant content and not enough action, he says.

4. Put your email on a diet.

People have forgotten how to write effectively—too much fluff and not enough nutrition, Williams says. The key to making email work is to start with understanding the audience and objective for your email. For starters, he says, ask yourself whether email is the right tool. Then make every word tell (cf. Strunk and White).

5. Take a hike.

One of Williams’ clients suggests that instead of sending emails, walk down the hall and talk in person. Another uses Microsoft Lync and IMs for quick questions or availability for a phone conversation. The same client “is also betting big on using internal social networking to make connections easier and quicker, and hopes to reduce email use in the process,” he says.

6. Try Gmail.

If you’re not in a rigid corporate environment, Holtz says, channel your email into Gmail, where everything you don’t delete is searchable. “Also, start using Google’s Inbox app, which clusters emails into logical groups that make it easier to get through them,” he says.

Try setting up filters to send emails you know you don’t want straight to trash or the appropriate folder, Holtz says.

7. Redirect staffer’s non-business announcements to a single email.

Ginny Hermann, communications manager at the Omaha-based Home Instead Senior Care network, says her company sends out a 9 a.m. internal email called “The Daily Dish.” It is filled with staffers’ announcements and has helped reduce the once-unavoidable flood of emails.

“When we first started, email was the only way, other than showing up at somebody’s desk or door, that anybody knew what was going on here at the home office,” she says. “You’d get everything from really business-related emails to ‘Hey, I have tickets to the Huskers game Saturday. Who wants them?’ It wasn’t unheard of that you’d get 50 emails a day.”

8. Use your corn flakes time.

Maybe you have good intentions, but never get to those emails full of links from a newspaper or organization on your must-read list. Try skimming the headlines over breakfast, says Heather Guenther, communications specialist at the University of Michigan Health System’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.

“I’m usually groggy until I’ve had a cup of coffee, so combining reading—-not responding to—emails while waking up helps me get a sense for what health care news may have broken overnight and plan my day accordingly,” she says.

9. Make your emails easy to scan.

Good email behavior has its altruistic side: saving time for others. Guenther praises Michigan Radio because its format—headlines at the top link to short synopses below—offers a quick overview and makes it easy for recipients to know which topics warrant further exploration.

“I can dive deeper into the stories that most interest me, while still getting a sense for the non-health-policy developing stories,” she says.

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