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Email in the Times of Covid: Email Do's and Dont's to Survive and Thrive at Work in the Pandemic Era

There’s an emerging trend, or rather gripe amongst my clients these days, too much unnecessary conflict is unfolding!

Especially with so much work from home over the past eighteen months, to rely on email more than phone or Zoom calls. As a result, assumptions and miscommunication are rampant, unnecessary drama unfolds, affecting team morale and effectiveness, and potentially stalling your next promotion. Now, this isn’t to say that collaboration software such as Slack is not working. Rather, the lack of face-to-face interaction has simply increased the frequency with which we send emails back and forth and thus more chances of misunderstanding the other side’s intent.

Today, we’ll go back to the basics, and I’ll be unpacking some email etiquette rules to keep in mind, especially for these unusual times.

Subject lines can make or break your email

Email boxes such as Outlook limit the number of characters any recipient will see in their inbox. While you can use tools such as Flags or Priority to catch the other person’s attention, the better option is to utilize the subject line to your advantage. Keep them short enough that they convey professionalism while making sure the other person understands your purpose.

Excessively long subject lines are never a good idea, nor are ones that are just a single word or two. As examples of both, neither “We need to talk about your future with this company within the next 24 hours” or “It’s time” are great ways to tell your direct report, “It’s time for your annual performance review.”

Remember that the other person is a human, just like you

Do you remember how I talked about our increased reliance on email due to working from home? It’s easy for us, in our increasingly disconnected workplace, to forget that we’re speaking to another person with thoughts, feelings, and their unique way of interpreting what we say. You don’t need to coddle people necessarily via email. However, you should always be mindful of your tone and the lack of body language (which influences how the other person reads what you wrote).

Stick to one or two points max

Stay focused with your emails, especially when contacting someone who is very busy. If you send your boss an email with ten questions in it, you can probably expect (at best) three of them to get an answer.

Let’s make this practical. If your subject line is, “I’d like to talk about my career”, the body of your email should stick to that point. Keep it short and assume any context or background is not necessary unless requested.

Sometimes, you’ll want to pick up the phone

There are times to send a long email, especially if you need to document items. On the other hand, a back and forth email chain or one that is excessively long may is probably better handled offline than through your mutual inboxes.

If the other person doesn’t understand what you’re telling them, it’s sometimes easier to just talk through the situation. Otherwise, you’re only going to create more frustration and confusion than you need to.

Don’t reply all unless necessary

If you send out an email to everyone on your team informing them of something internal, doesn’t it frustrate the rest of your staff when one or two individuals reply all back to you to let you know of something that only pertains to them?

Likewise, when you’re on an email recipient list, only reply all if it’s necessary. Set the example for your team to follow.

Remember that your words can be an official record

Although I hope you never have to deal with an unruly employee, it’s likely something you’ll face at some point. Many HR departments choose to (or are required to) document everything that is sent via email. If you have an employee who frustrates you or needs to be coached, you’ll want to tread carefully with the things you say via email — especially if this person may be on their way out the door. It’s unlikely there will be any kind of legal repercussions, but you never know. It’s always better to be succinct and tactful via email rather than emotional.

Writing effective emails can help you achieve career success

In the past, I’ve talked about the benefits of clear communication. Whether speaking with your superiors or your direct reports, your career success can heavily depend on how well you communicate. Don’t forget to put together a clear, concise subject line while simultaneously keeping in mind the needs of the other person. Emails should stick to just one or two points; otherwise, picking up the phone may be your best bet. Be mindful of the reply-all button: just because a person was on the distribution list doesn’t mean they need to be included in your reply. Finally, records retention can mean that your words are permanent. You don’t want to open a can of worms that can have unintended side effects down the road.

We can't be sure of what the future will look like in regards to how much or how little face time you'll get with your team; so commit yourself to making the best choices when it comes to email etiquette. And if you need a little help, you can reach out via this form.


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