Effective Email Communication & Organization Strategies
Although email is a valuable communication tool, it also presents challenges. Miscommunication can easily occur when people have different expectations. In addition, email is used for many different purposes so the messages you send will differ in their formality, intended audience, and desired outcome. Finally, the use of email for advertising purposes has clogged communication channels, preventing some desired emails from reaching their intended audience. Writers are challenged to make their email stand apart and to grab and hold the attention of their audience.
How do you know when sending an email is the most effective way of getting your message across? When is a brief message acceptable and when is it more appropriate to send a longer, more formal email? How should a writer decide what style of writing is appropriate for each task? How can you prevent your email from ending up in the spam or deleted folder?
- Unsubscribe from bulk email lists that you do not read.
- Identify ‘Junk’ or ‘Spam’ emails and move them to the designated ‘Junk’ or ‘Spam’ folder; don’t just delete them. (Spam, or junk email, is unsolicited email that tries to sell you something.) You can also request that your spam list be sent to you regularly.
- Do not use University email accounts for personal emails. Forward personal messages received in your University email account to a personal account and reply from there.
- Clean up redundant messages. Cluttered email folders are problematic to navigate and use efficiently. Moving or deleting redundant emails will alleviate some of the issues. For those using Outlook, you can use the Conversation Clean Up settings to remove redundant messages.
Tips for Sending Email
Determine the appropriate communication method. Before using email to conduct University business, consider the business needs of the department and the type of information to be communicated. This will determine whether or not email is the most suitable method of communicating the information.
- Ask yourself, “Do you need to include everyone on this message?” Target your audience and only broadcast your message when it is appropriate.
- Ask yourself, “Should this message be sent via email at all?”
- When is e-mail the appropriate form of communication?
- When the person is hard to reach via phone, does not come to campus regularly, or is not local.
- When information is not time-sensitive; the sender should not expect an instantaneous response.
- When you need to send someone an electronic file.
- When you need to distribute information to a large number of people quickly.
- When you need a written record of the communication.
- When is e-mail NOT an appropriate form of communication?
- When the message is long and complicated or requires additional verbal clarification.
- When information is highly confidential. E-mail should never be expected to be private.
- When the message is emotionally charged or the tone could be easily misconstrued.
- Attachments can raise flags in spam filters
- Attachments can exceed file size limits and be rejected by the mail system
- Attachments can use up a lot of storage
- You cannot track who opens attachments, whereas linked documents often track usage and access
Use an electronic filing system. Departments should create a filing system for email that parallels the filing structure for paper files. Departments should establish a department-wide naming convention for electronic documents and relevant email. Messages should be filed in a way that makes accessing them fairly easy and reliable.
Once you open an email message, decide what you are going to do with it before you close it. Try to handle each email message only once before taking action.
- Delete it - Immediately after reading any e-mails that are not considered records determine if the information can be found elsewhere. If so, delete it. For most University employees, 80-90% of email messages can be deleted because either the information in the email can be found in other places or the information is transitory and therefore not a record. [Refer to the What is a Record? flowchart for more information about determining if your emails are records.]
- Do it - If you can respond or take specific action in two minutes or less – do it. Immediately file those emails that are considered records.
- Delegate it - Determine whether you need to respond to it or whether you should delegate it to someone who is better placed to respond to it.
- Defer it - If a response or specific action will take more than two minutes of dedicated time – defer it. If you are working in Outlook, take advantage of the ability to flag messages or add email messages to your “To Do” list by dragging the message to your "Tasks" list.
- File it - Create folders that are logically aligned with the way in which business is conducted for your office such as projects, transactions, standing meetings, budgets, or employees. Place all email that you want to retain that is related to a project, transaction, or meeting in the appropriate folder. Where possible try to parallel or associate your paper-based filing system with the email folder system. Regularly move e-mail no longer needed for active projects to an “Archive” folder.
If your inbox is awash in unread messages and unsorted old mail, consider declaring email bankruptcy. Move all of your unsorted mail into a folder for long term storage. Having a clean slate helps many users to start applying better email management habits. If you discover that you do not access the messages in your long term storage folder, it may be worthwhile to consider deleting them. If you do access these messages create new relevant folders (see above) and drag the messages there.
Other Inbox Tips
- Apply some simple rules for sorting your email:
- Move emails to folders. You can do this manually or set up automatic rules.
- Create a folder structure to match your business processes and your paper folder structure if applicable.
- Use subject line, file and folder names consistent with your group’s processes and policies.
- Manage email as threads. A thread, also called a string, is an email conversation of at least one response on a similar subject. After the last message on the original topic is sent, a designated person should file the thread according to the topic. All other participants in the message thread should delete their copy as soon as they no longer need it.
Eliminate drafts. Draft content and attachments should be purged or archived shortly after the final version has been approved so as to reduce confusion about document versioning.
Add a retention plan to every folder. You can request that retention policies be activated in Outlook, by using a calendar reminder, or by simply including the retention period in the folder title, i.e. DOCS – 1 Year.
- Create rules to prioritize your incoming messages. For those using Outlook there are ways to automatically organize incoming emails.
- For Outlook users, Outlook can highlight messages that have only you in the recipient line. When you are the sole recipient, the message is typically more relevant to you than if you are one of dozens of people in the CC: line.
Retention and Disposition
- Retain email that are official records. Messages and attachments that are treated as official records need to be retained the same length of time that they would be retained if they were hard copy documents. University employees responsible for managing email as records for their department need to acquaint themselves with the University’s records retention schedules. These schedules cover most records common to all departments. Determine who will be responsible for tracking official communications of the office.
- Retain official records in a usable format. Email identified as official records must be retained as long as required by the records retention schedules in a format that makes them accessible and usable for the purpose for which they are being retained. If the email is printed out and retained in paper form, all header information should be included.
- Submit a disposal request to purge official records. Once retention of official records is no longer needed, they should be included in a routine disposal process along with other electronic and paper records. Doing so reduces unnecessary storage and management costs for the University.
- Email is not private. Email can be copied and forwarded to numerous individuals who may choose to post the contents of these messages anywhere they like. Messages may also be retained long after the intended function has been completed. Never create a message that you would not want made public.
- University email is not in your sole control. Any email sent or received having to do with the business of the University is subject to discovery or freedom of information laws regardless of where it resides.
Need more guidance on when an email is an official record? Please read our "Recordkeeping Considerations for Email Messages" publication.
Have a question that isn't answered here or need more specialized guidance? Please contact us!
Records and Information Management Services
Urbana Office: Rm. 450 HAB M/C 359
Chicago Office: AOB B11, M/C 817