Honeywell Manager's Journal

August 2006

Efficient E-mail

How to Communicate Efficiently and Effectively

Earlier this year, Paolo Carmassi sent a memo to his staff. The subject: redundant e-mails.

“You may wonder why I haven’t responded promptly to your request for help. Why I haven’t made a prompt decision on a critical topic you notified me about. Why can’t Paolo keep up?” wrote the general manager of Asia Pacific for Honeywell Transportation Systems.

“Well, it’s because I’m receiving 200-ish e-mails per day – many about nothing I can add value to.” Then Carmassi added the kicker: “And the worst thing is … you are probably struggling with the very same issue yourself!”

E-mail has revolutionized the workplace, enabling global companies to stay connected, teams to share knowledge in seconds and deals to get done at a speed unimaginable barely a decade ago. But as this once-arcane communication channel has become commonplace, it’s also become so crowded that e-mail often sabotages its own promise of efficiency.

“If used appropriately, e-mail is a huge time-saver,” says Mike Garten, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Aerospace's Defense & Space’s military aircraft unit. “But it can be abused, and then you lose the upside of what was intended.”

The Communications Paradox

According to the Institute for Business Technology’s ongoing survey of workplace productivity, the average manager in the United States receives 200 e-mails per day after spam is extracted. Half are of no value whatsoever to the recipient. Administrative and newer staff receive an average of 50 e-mails per day, with about 30 percent deemed a waste of time. No wonder Jeff Peterson, vice president of Sales and Customer Marketing for Defense & Space, says simply, “The ‘Reply All’ function is horrible.”

John Hung has calculated how much time is drained each day in dealing with e-mail – and how little time is left to write a thoughtful response.

“If you’re looking at a 10-hour work day in the office, during which you need to spend at least four to six hours of face-to-face interaction with your staff, colleagues, boss and customers, that leaves you about four hours to address e-mail and voice-mail,” says the IT director for Transportation Systems, Asia–Pacific. “The average person has to process 100 e-mails each day – meaning, they have to read each message, find the relevant information to support it, make a decision, start a discussion or follow up a clarification. If you have four hours in which to process 100 e-mails, that leaves you a little more than two minutes per e-mail.”

Adding to the problem is that e-mail creates its own sense of urgency: You feel that you have to clean out your e-mailbox at the end of the day. But when e-mail takes priority over other tasks, is that the best use of time?

“E-mail can give you a false sense of accomplishment, of thinking, ‘Hey, I got through my e-mails today,’” Peterson says. “But what did you actually accomplish?”

That’s the hidden danger of e-mail. “It can make you work on someone else’s agenda, instead of your own agenda,” Peterson says. “We have all these brilliant people with a clear sense of their objectives and mission to support their customers. We want them to do what they know they should be doing, not letting e-mail drag them into some other agenda.”

Simplifying Your Approach to E-mail

Many managers struggle to figure out how they and their team can avoid being drowned by the flood of e-mail. Some, like Carmassi and Garten, lay down a few basic rules.

“Whenever someone new joins my team, we have this little lesson in communication basics,” Garten says. “You have to keep e-mail simple. It’s not a forum to rewrite the Bible.”

Ask your team to keep four questions in mind when they write e-mail:

Who has a real need to see it? “One of my biggest issues right now is that everyone copies everyone else,” Garten says. “That just adds to people’s workload and their frustration. And in a lot of cases, they don’t need to see it anyway.”

What is your key message? One of Peterson’s pet peeves is e-mail in which he has to scroll through a convoluted message chain to find the point. “If I’m sending something that someone needs to know, I write a one-line summary at the beginning saying, ‘I think you need to know this and if you want more detail, read the chain,” he says. Another efficient way to get your message across: Summarize the main elements of the text in bullet points. Garten also enjoins his team to put the necessary action right up front, preferably in the subject line. “A lot of people put the action at the end of the e-mail,” he says. The result: The message is set aside for reading later or may not even be read at all.

When does it need a response? With everyone swamped with e-mail, if you want a timely response, you need to ask for it right at the beginning of your message. “I’ll say, ‘I’d like a response by the end of this day because...,’” says Steve Horder, Business and Product manager for Aerospace’s Marketing and Product Management function. “It’s generally appreciated because people are looking to prioritize their to-do items, and if you don’t set a priority, you won’t get a priority.”

Where could it end up? Barely a month goes by without news of someone’s bad behavior being exposed because their e-mail got passed on to an unintended recipient. Once you hit the “send” button, you have no control over where the message may end up, warns Mary Beth Orson, general legal counsel for Aerospace’s Air Transport & Regional, Boeing and Regional Aircraft OEMs group. That’s why, as a general principle, you and your team should avoid bombastic language, such as “We’re going to crush so-and-so.” Skip legal conclusions like, “We’ll get in trouble if we make this statement.” Similarly, restrict the message to facts, not opinion. Don’t say, “Here’s a terrible situation.” Just describe what’s happening. “Always assume that your e-mail will become public,” Orson says. “It could be forwarded and re-forwarded over and over,” and end up being seen by a competitor, introduced as evidence in a lawsuit or reviewed by a government agency.

What E-mail Is Good For

Although everyone likes to gripe about e-mail abuse, the fact remains that e-mail has undeniable benefits and, when used thoughtfully, far outweighs traditional communication channels for certain tasks:

One-to-many announcements. “When there’s something that I’d like a lot of people to know – an organizational change at a customer, for example – rather than call everyone, I’ll send an e-mail that says, ‘I was just at Customer X and found out that a new person just got promoted,’” Peterson says.

Specific action items. Items that require a quick and simple decision without requiring much back-and-forth – “I need your approval to spend money on this task” – are handled quickly by e-mail.

Disseminating information to a group. “If I’m doing an AOP (Annual Operating Plan) task and need everyone to get their data in by next Thursday, I can tell everyone what data is needed and by what time,” Peterson says.

Specific instructions across time zones. When your team is scattered across multiple time zones, having e-mail communication helps share the information so people can be prepared to make that 4 a.m. conference call, Hung says. At the same time, be aware of the pitfalls of sending e-mail messages across different languages and cultures, he warns. Colloquialisms, slang, humor and sarcasm rarely translate well and, without the immediacy of a face-to-face or voice-to-voice exchange, can cause misunderstanding and hurt feelings. The solution: Use clear language, be brief and organize your thoughts in bullet points.

When E-mail Doesn’t Work Well

Just as there are specific tasks superbly suited for e-mail communication, there are others where using e-mail can promote problems.

Complex issues. “If the issue is going to take more than one round of discussion, don’t do it on e-mail,” Peterson says. “And if you have to write more than a short paragraph, e-mail is not the answer. So if it’s a strategic issue or a difficult discussion, get on the phone or have a face-to-face meeting.”

Any emotional issue. People read different things into a message depending on their emotional state, and the ease of hitting the “send” button can quickly escalate into a flame war. “When I see people arguing in an e-mail exchange and read the phrase, ‘You don’t understand,’ that immediately clues me in,” Garten says. “I regularly cut off e-mail chains and write, ‘This is not appropriate for e-mail. Please pick up the phone and call the person.’ Then I’ll follow that up with my own call explaining why I cut off the e-mail.”

Praise. “E-mail is a fast way to praise employees, but it’s not the best way,” Peterson says. “Face-to-face or by phone is better.”

Time-critical issues. “You can’t rely on e-mail if something is time-critical,” Garten says. When a meeting is suddenly rescheduled or you need to have certain information on short notice, don’t assume that your team is tied to their e-mail. Pick up the phone and call.

In short, e-mail may be the most efficient form of communication but it’s not always the most effective. Like any tool, it is well-suited to specific tasks; in other cases, however, it can hurt you and the recipient. Just because we’re habituated to e-mail doesn’t mean that we should always use it.

“I think we use e-mail as a crutch,” says Herb Muther, vice president of Sales, Europe, Middle East and Africa, for Honeywell Building Solutions. “We rely on e-mail way too much, especially when we start to deal with more sensitive subjects or try to articulate different opinions in a decision-making process. If you just picked up the phone and spoke to someone directly, in 10 or 15 minutes you could air out the issues, come to a conclusion and move forward.”