Email etiquette and effective email usage

We receive on average 7.9 million emails per month on the University of York domain, that’s seven times as many emails as we send. It is estimated that people now spend one third of their time at the office - and half of the time they work at home - reading and answering emails. This presents a challenge for both academic and professional support staff; balancing workloads and responsiveness.

This guidance below will help you make effective use of email and manage your inbox, and increase awareness of following:

  • how you can use the medium of email effectively
  • how you can make email work better for you and the University of York
  • how to reduce time spent and gain more control over your email traffic.

Our top 10 tips

We’ve distilled all of our advice into our top 10 tips for effective email usage and we hope that these can be adopted across the organisation. This guidance and advice is focused on Gmail as it's our supported email service. We recommend that you use Gmail and if you choose to use an alternate email client you may not be able to use some of the features we’ve referenced.

1. Ask yourself if you really need to send this email

What are you trying to achieve by sending an email? If you’re looking for a quick response, a chat service, a phone call, or a physical conversation may work better. A group chat tool can be useful if you need to discuss something without creating a long and confusing email chain. If your email is a regular update to a group of people, then a blog or social media website may work better and enable recipients to engage more with your content.

2. Use smarter subject lines

Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category eg [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. This makes it clear what you want people to do. Use [Urgent] and [Important] with caution - urgency and importance are subjective!

Gmail groups together email with the same subject in conversation threads. If the topic changes later, just change the subject accordingly. That way, you won’t have any unrelated messages linked together in your inbox.

3. Look at how your email is written

How long is your email? Where have you put the key messages or actions you want the other person to take in? Remember, people have a lot of emails to read and will skim them for the most important points. Get quickly to the point and use concise sentences and short paragraphs, putting anything particularly important separate from the rest of the text. Keep your email short, using links to external pages where necessary.

You can find further ideas for how to do this in this video on how to annoy people with email.

4. Share don’t send

When you attach a file to an email, you lose control over access to that file and how many versions there are - this is bad for security.

In your email you can include a link to a document in Google Drive rather than attaching it as a file. Using Drive rather than attachments to share documents allows for control over permissions even if the email is forwarded to other people. It also means there is only ever one document (with version history).

You can also add a document (eg an agenda) to an event in Google Calendar and use the ‘Share’ button to let people know you’d like to collaborate.

Find out more about document sharing and collaborative editing:

5. Think before you send

Always proofread your email. There are a couple of things you can do to avoid those unfortunate incidents where you’ve sent an email to the wrong person. Write your email first and add the recipients once you’re finished. You can configure Gmail’s Undo Send feature, which gives you up to 30 seconds to retrieve an email that you’ve just sent.

6. Understand when to use CC, BCC and Reply All

For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Be respectful of people’s time and think about whether they really need the information you are sending. When there are multiple recipients, please don't default to 'Reply All'. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

We recommend using BCC if you are emailing a group of staff who don’t know each other. And you should always use it if emailing a group of students or customers, so that you don’t share email addresses without a lawful basis for doing so. To be safe, ask a colleague to check that you have used BCC before you send an email to a large group of people.

7. Signed, sealed, delivered

Many people in our organisation work outside of core hours. Often people try to manage this by using a third-party email scheduler, but this may mask a problem with people working outside of office hours or transfer the issue of email traffic back to office hours. The University does have access to 'Schedule send' in Gmail and would not recommend using any alternative free versions as they will have full access to your emails so would not be GDPR compliant.  

We need to acknowledge however that work life balance and wellbeing are based on individual personal preference and working out of core hours may suit different people's preferences and commitments. Acknowledging this and having realistic expectations on response times can address this issue.

You can use your email signature to explain that you don’t require a response straight away. We’d suggest something like:

​I work flexibly - so whilst it suits me to email now, I do not expect a response or action outside of your own working hours.

8. Use the features of email to your advantage

You can manage your incoming mail using Gmail’s filters. This enables you to set up rules to attach a label, archive, delete, star, or automatically forward your emails.

Labels work like folders, except you can add multiple labels to a message.

You can delegate access to your account or to a non-personal account. This way you don’t share passwords and all staff have access to the email accounts they need.

Sort your emails into different inbox tabs or use the ‘priority inbox’ setting, where your emails are automatically split into three sections: important and unread, starred, and everything else. The G Suite Learning Centre provides useful advice to choose the right inbox setting for you.

Under your Advanced Settings in Gmail you can find a number of features you can turn on to help manage email to your advantage. These include a preview pane, canned responses (templates) and custom keyboard shortcuts.

Working within the Gmail client itself also means you can use the following Google products in the sidebar, in the same browser window so you don’t need to switch between tabs:

Calendar: Check your schedule and add or edit events.

Keep: Create a note or list.

 Tasks: Add to-do items and deadlines.

9. Limit how often you check your email

If we all agreed to spend less time sending email, we'd all receive less email! Consider scheduling half-days at work where you can't go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends.

10. Don’t handle an email more than once

‘Do, Delegate, Delete’ is a good practice to get into when working through your email. This ensures that you only ever handle each email once.

Rather than using your inbox as a running task list, move actions from emails to another system such as Google Tasks or Google Keep.

If you want to clean up your inbox without deleting your emails, you can archive or mute them. Your emails are moved to a label called "All Mail."

When you archive a message: The message will come back to your inbox when someone replies to it.

When you mute a message: Any replies stay out of your inbox. You can search for the conversation if you want to find it again.

When you delete a message it stays in your Trash for 30 days. After that time, it will be permanently deleted.

Useful email effectiveness resources