Managing email

In my last blog post I wrote about tidiness, and about how imposing order and systems might make both your personal and your professional life calmer and less stressful.  It occurs to me that managing email may be a key part of this.  Can we ensure that email is a tool we use to suit us, rather than a demanding element of our work which increases the pressure?

I would suggest that schools need an email protocol, which is openly discussed, confirmed and clarified, communicated and enforced.  Unless we use email responsibly, all our colleagues may suffer.  Email inefficiency can have a damaging knock-on effect.  So in addition to a school-wide policy which is understood and respected, can we make personal choices about our email strategy which means that email is our servant and not our master?

I think having one phone for work and home from which you access emails can actually be problematic, particularly if there is pressure to activate alerts so that you are receiving work emails/messages 24/7, including in the holidays.  I would always choose to ‘pull’ emails, and Twitter messages and notifications, rather than receiving them automatically (and having the Pavlovian dog response of feeling obliged to open them as soon as they arrive).  Choose when you are going to spend time on your messages, and if you are having down-time and a rest, when you don’t even want to think about school, then you resist checking ‘just in case’.  I wrote here about making the most of your holidays, and keeping separate Twitter accounts for your personal and professional contacts, if that helps.

So what might a school-wide email protocol look like?  I know school contexts differ, and understand that you have to choose guidelines which work for you.  I also think you need buy-in, here, so rather than the head and SLT deciding on a set of rules and disseminating them, I think there should be discussion and a receptivity to hearing a range of ideas before decisions are made.  But once they are made, and communicated, there need to be prompts and reminders to ensure all staff follow them.  If people disagree with some aspects of the protocol, explain you have listened, but no policy can ever please everyone.  They still need to follow it.

Think about the following:

  • People have personal preferences and different working routines which I think we have to respect, so I’m not keen on restricted hours/days when you can send emails, though I do think it’s unreasonable to expect people immediately to read/respond if you send emails at unsocial hours – and, whatever you say when you’re a head, there will be some people who think they should read any email you send them, and respond immediately, or you will somehow think badly of them. Delayed delivery, sending in between, eg, 8am and 9pm, may work better.  I like this message, which appears at the foot of primary head Liz Robinson’s emails:”I work flexibly to maximise time with my children and sometime work late in the evening once bedtime is done. I do not expect anyone to read, much less respond, to emails at unsociable hours.”
  • I would say there should be only ONE person on the ‘to’ line, and that is the person who should take action if action is required.  If you are cc this is just for info, and you’re not expected to do anything.  If you are cc and you DO have a thought/suggestion/idea about the issue, you don’t reply to the person who sent it, and you certainly don’t ‘reply all’ (that, and groups, need to be used judiciously, and I would say only the head can send an ‘all staff’ email and that should be extremely rare). You should reply to whoever is on the ‘To’ line, if you really want to say something, as they are responsible for co-ordinating the response.
  • Thanks to Paul Ainsworth, who pointed out to me that some i-Phones actually default to ‘reply all’, so watch this.  He advises using bcc (though you can make clear in the email text who it has gone to) in case anyone does accidentally ‘reply all’.  And be discriminating about who you copy in; don’t go for the scatter-gun approach.
  • If we are receiving an overwhelming number of emails, it is tempting to ignore them, but this causes stress for the senders: (‘Have they received it? What do they think about it? Are they cross?’)  If a response is required at least send a holding email and, if you can, make clear when you will be able to get back to them (and do what you have promised you will do).  Remember to use  an ‘out of office’ email which should slow traffic on days when you are unable to deal with messages.
  • If an email includes strong emotion of any type, it shouldn’t be an email.  It needs to be a face-to-face conversation.  If an email is long (over one side) it shouldn’t be an email. Be aware of long back and forth exchanges which become increasingly testy, including with parents. Pick up the phone and talk or, better still, invite people in to meet you, address and defuse. If you ever are feeling strongly emotional when you write an email, save it in drafts and go back after a good night’s sleep.  You may decide to edit it before you send it, or even to delete it completely! Writing it all down may still have served a purpose.

angry email

  • And if you do go to your computer and find a backlog, read messages in reverse chronological order. Sometimes events have moved on since the first email in a sequence was sent, and you can delete the earlier ones immediately.

So what do you think you might include in your email protocol?  Try to keep it simple –  one side of A4 in bullet points, maybe?  Stick copies up in sensible places, as well as distributing to all.  And reinforce it.  If people aren’t adhering to it, someone needs to have a conversation with them about it.  Reinforce until it becomes the norm.

If you have further thoughts or suggestions, please do add comments below.  Can we exchange ideas so we can help each other use email effectively, efficiently and reasonably?

Photo credit: John Berry

5 thoughts on “Managing email

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