We received on average 8.5 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’ - plus 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, with respect to:
- how you can use the medium of email effectively
- how you can make email work better for you and the University of York
- how you can reduce time spent on emails and gain more control over your email traffic.
These are our top 10 tips for effective email usage. This guidance is focused on Gmail as it's our supported email service.
What are you trying to achieve by sending an email? If you’re looking for a quick response then try a call, ask someone in person or use Slack.
Messaging a group? Creating or messaging a Slack channel can be useful if you need to discuss something without creating a long and confusing email chain. Using emoji reactions is a much faster way to communicate in many cases.
If your email is a regular update to a group, then a blog or social media website may work better and enable recipients to actively engage more with your content.
Finally, consider the longevity of the information.
Speaking to a colleague over the phone/video call or in person won’t leave a record of what was said; you’ll have to remember.
Slack records messages for 13 months, but messages might be missed if they pile up in the same channel; users must proactively scroll up to see what has been sent in their absence.
Emails are there until read and can be archived for reference later on.
Start with a subject line that clearly and concisely labels the topic using keywords; this will help if you need to search for the email later. Including a status category can be helpful eg, [Info], [Action], [Deadline], [Low Priority]. This makes it clear what you want people to do.
Use [Urgent] and [Important] with caution - urgency and importance are subjective!
Gmail automatically groups together emails with the same subject in conversation threads; just change the subject line to avoid having any unrelated messages linked together in your inbox. However, if you don’t like this setting, turn off conversation view.
How long is your email? Are any key messages or actions clear and prominent? 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 (avoiding jargon and acronyms) and 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 inspiration in this video on how to annoy people with email.
When you attach a computer file to an email, you lose control over access to that file and how many versions there are - this is bad for data protection and security.
In your email, include a link to a document in Google Drive rather than attaching it as a file from your computer. Using Drive 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.
Always proofread your email. To avoid those unfortunate incidents where you’ve sent an email to the wrong person, try writing your email first and adding the recipients once you’re finished. To help catch any mistakes, you can configure Gmail’s Undo Send feature, which gives you up to 30 seconds to retrieve an email that you’ve just sent.
If you prefer, you can schedule an email to send at a time which will be more convenient for the recipient(s).
Consider who really needs to receive your email and its content, as reading or replying to emails takes time (and impacts the environment, too).
If there are multiple recipients, does everyone need your reply? Maybe you only need to reply to a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.
Use your settings to alter whether ‘Reply to all’ is your default.
CC (Carbon Copy):
Generally used to involve interested parties in an email thread, CC suggests their reply is optional and more for information purposes. If you CC someone, consider whether or not they really need the information.
BCC (Blind Carbon Copy):
Use to keep email addresses private from other email recipients, such as when emailing a group of staff who don’t know each other. 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. With larger groups. it’s much better to use YAMM instead of BCC (plus you benefit from seeing useful statistics about your email).
Many people in our organisation work outside of core hours. It is possible to schedule an email to send within core hours, but this may mask a problem with people working outside of office hours or transfer the issue of email traffic back to office hours.
We need to acknowledge 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 in your message and having realistic expectations of response times can address this issue. A thoughtful email signature can also help eg, I work flexibly; whilst it suits me to email now, I do not expect a response or action outside of your own working hours.
Gmail filters allow you to automatically manage your incoming mail. Set up rules to attach a label, archive, delete, star, or automatically forward your emails.
Labels are like folders, except you can add multiple labels to a message to categorise and group together related messages to make referencing or searching them easier.
Delegate access gives others access to the mailbox of your account or to a non-personal account. This way you don’t share passwords and colleagues have access to the email accounts they need.
You can use associated tools in the sidebar (on the right), 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.
Zoom: Schedule a Zoom meeting.
If we all agreed to spend less time sending emails, we'd all spend less time reading emails! Consider scheduling half-days at work where you can't send anything. Or a commitment to email-free weekends.
‘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.
Clean up your inbox using Archive, Mute or Delete.
Archive a message:
The message will be moved out of your inbox, but remain within your All Mail label. It will come back to your inbox when someone replies to it, helping you by giving context with previous correspondence.
Mute a message:
Any replies stay out of your inbox. You can search for the conversation if you want to find it again. This is useful when, for example, a group of people are actively discussing something that doesn’t involve you, but you want to retain the emails for future reference.