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Hybrid working: wellbeing and inclusion
Hybrid working: wellbeing and inclusion

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4.1 Managing email – and its alternatives

Do you dread opening your email inbox? Do you feel like you spend so long each day reading, responding to and administering email that you have no time to do your ‘actual work’? If so, you’re not alone.

Email is a digital tool and, like all tools, learning how to use it more effectively, familiarising yourself with its strengths and weaknesses, and exploring different techniques and approaches in using it will help you minimise any negative impact on your mental wellbeing – and that of your colleagues.

When is email the best tool for the task?

What is the purpose of your email, and is it time-sensitive? For example, if you have a question that needs a quick response, would online chat, a phone call or a video call work better?

Depending on your organisation’s policies and guidance for use of third-party tools, the provider’s terms and conditions, group chat tools such as WhatsApp/Messenger/Signal can be useful if you need to discuss something with multiple contacts but don’t want to generate a lengthy and confusing email chain. However, you need to be mindful of use of the tools, especially sending messages outside of working hours, and be aware that not everyone has a mobile phone for work, or uses their personal devices for work, so they may not welcome such exchanges on a personal device.

If your email is a regular update for an audience that includes a mixture of internal and external contacts, would a blog or social media post be more effective?

Essentially, when used well, email is a great way to communicate with colleagues asynchronously – without needing to be on the same platform or free at the same time.

Email formatting and features

Emails have a subject line for a reason. If your email has a precise but concise subject line, the recipient(s) will immediately know what it relates to and can prioritise it accordingly. It will also help to stop that email getting overlooked in an overstuffed inbox full of messages with vague or empty subject lines.

How long is your email, and how is it structured? People who receive a lot of emails will skim the contents for the most important points, so it’s important to make any key messages or actions unmistakeable. Bullets or bold text can help with this. No one wants to read an email essay, so get to the point quickly and use concise sentences and short paragraphs.

Check before you send!

It’s all too easy to send emails on impulse, but realising you made mistakes, omitted important information, or used a misjudged tone in them can be hard to recover from.

Before you click ‘send’, check that you’re sending it to the right person or people – and that you’ve chosen the correct option between ‘reply’ and ‘reply all’. Make sure you’ve only addressed it to the people that it is absolutely relevant to and haven’t copied in people who don’t need to engage with its content. One of the biggest contributors to email overload is copying in everyone with even the slightest connection to the subject. This is a waste of their time and yours.

When to send an email?

In the ‘always available’ culture we’ve mentioned previously, with some people using mobile devices and working more flexibly, including at weekends or across different time zones, emails can arrive in your inbox any time of the day or night. This has led to debates about whether you should only be allowed to email during ‘core’ working hours.

The duty of care for employees’ and colleagues’ wellbeing means that it is now essential to have an awareness of the impact of emails received outside of core hours. Regularly sending or receiving emails outside core hours could indicate a workload issue that should be discussed. Individuals may feel obliged to reply, especially if they have linked their work email account to their personal device(s). Emails that contain ‘bad news’ can lead to upset and worry, especially if the sender cannot be contacted in a timely manner.

However, due to flexible working patterns, not allowing emails to be sent outside of core hours could also have an impact on wellbeing. To address this, you could encourage the practice of drafting emails outside core hours to be sent within core hours, using the ‘send later’ scheduling tools now available in most email systems.

Imposing order on your email chaos

  • Establish a strategy or schedule for reading and responding to email, e.g. if you feel that it’s taking over too much of your working time, try checking your emails only at certain times of day, during your normal working hours.
  • Share your strategy with others, so they know not to expect an immediate response if they contact you via email.
  • Use folders to organise what you can’t delete – these could be as simple as Action, Waiting, Reference and Archive, or you could create a folder for every project you work on.
  • Consider setting up rules to send certain emails directly to those folders.
  • Use your personal email account (if you have one) for all non-work email.

Email alternatives

Use of Microsoft Teams seems to have increased rapidly in the HE sector as a consequence of the pandemic, thanks to its ‘one-stop shop’ functionality. Some people now use it as their primary communication tool, instead of email, and it can be very useful for working collaboratively and synchronously. However, used without care, it can be just as much of a pest as email: interrupting work and sending endless notifications, for example. It also doesn’t yet seem to have established the sort of etiquette that email has been developing over the last few decades.

A notable feature of platforms like Teams (see also Slack and Discord) is that they allow you to set a ‘status’ that indicates to other people whether you’re available to talk, busy working on something, temporarily ‘away’ or offline. However, some people may feel pressure to keep this constantly up to date, or worry about being seen to be productive, especially when working from home – as you’ll see later in Section 4.3, which covers the problem of presenteeism.