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The Smartest Ways to Use Email at Work

From The Wall Street Journal:

Email has become so ingrained in our workday life that we rarely give it a second thought. Perhaps we should.

Researchers have been putting a laser focus on how we can be smarter about using email at work, and they have come up with surprising insights—from the best way to tame an overflowing inbox to the unintended consequences of punctuation choices.

In some cases, these findings completely overturn what we think we know about how to write messages. For instance, responding to email right away can be a terrible idea. And using emojis can be a great one.

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Don’t answer too quickly—or after hours

Replying to email promptly is a good thing, right? Not always. In fact, in companies whose cultures emphasize speed of response, workers are more stressed, less productive, more reactive and less likely to think strategically.

Those are some of the conclusions reached by Emma Russell, senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Kingston University in the U.K., from a recent review of academic literature.

“People think that if they respond quickly to their colleague, that’s going to support a strong social relationship, but in terms of actual well-being and productivity, there was no evidence that that kind of culture is effective,” says Dr. Russell.

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A company culture where employees are encouraged to answer emails quickly may be especially difficult for highly conscientious people. Her research on such workers showed that email notifications caused them higher stress than other people and made them unproductive in their other work, even though they often put off answering the notes.

On the other hand, one size doesn’t fit all. Her preliminary findings from a new study of extroverts suggest that when they are working on routine tasks, being interrupted by an email notification might actually be good for them—the social stimulation may help them avoid boredom and complete their tasks more effectively.

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The best times to send an email

How do you get people to pay attention to your emails amid all the competing demands on their attention? Kristina Lerman, project leader at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, has done extensive research on cognitive overload—how our brains respond when faced with too much information.

One key finding: When faced with a screen packed with information, people tend to focus on what’s at the top. So, it follows that you want to time your email to correspond with when people are checking.

In a 2015 study in collaboration with Yahoo Labs, Dr. Lerman and her colleague Farshad Kooti analyzed a huge data set of 16 billion emails—personal and business—to look for patterns. They found that people replied more quickly early in the week, and those replies were also longer. The same applied to time of day—between 8 a.m. and noon was best. “I use these findings myself,” says Dr. Lerman. “If I want to send an important email, I don’t do it on a Friday. I wait until Monday morning, so it’s much more likely to be at the top.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Business of Writing

One Comments to “The Smartest Ways to Use Email at Work”

  1. If you’re a writer the best way to use email is to have it turned off while you’re ‘working’, only turning it on when you’re done or in need of a break from your writing.

    Of course some may like reading their mail before starting to work, but no one needs to be typing/writing away and hear a little “PING! You’ve got mail!”

    YMMV as they say. 😉

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