5 smart and simple steps to improve email management and productivity

In a short space of time, email has changed almost beyond recognition, with communication tools and software transforming the way we work and communicate.

Cloud computing and the arrival of increasingly powerful tablets and smartphones together facilitate a more fluid, multi-device workflow. Whether we’re at the office or the airport, synced and secure email accounts make it easy for us to pick up where we left off, helping us to squeeze every bit of productivity out of the working day.

And yet email management can still eat up valuable time for employees and businesses. While successful communication is vital to the smooth operation of any business, inefficient use of email and other messaging tools can have a negative effect on productivity. And, with its potential to affect work-life balance, employee morale and even attention span, the misuse of emails can have other, more significant effects.

A study conducted by Microsoft estimated that the average attention in 2000 was 12 seconds and that, in part due to our digital lifestyles, this figure had fallen to around 8 seconds by 2010. Email and time management matter for businesses and their employees, and the ever-increasing supply of time management and team communication apps suggests that this is big business. But even though the problem is one of technology, some of the most effective solutions are still human ones.

Here are five simple principles that could help you to harness your email, time and attention more productively.

1. Think first, read second

For an employee to manage emails successfully, she/he has to know which ones are more important than others, and this comes down to real priorities. With the big picture in view, it is easier to stay focused on your goals and to be clear about why you’re reading and what you need to take from it.

Clarity of this kind is not easily achieved and requires a good deal of rigorous thinking and decisiveness. Once you identify the most important emails, you’ll be able to read them more quickly and respond more effectively.

2. Focus on output, not input

With the variety of devices and communication tools at the our disposal, it’s all too easy to confuse sending off dozens of emails for productivity. Moreover, many people working in business environments have a natural propensity towards staying late, implicitly equating hours and value.

This is, of course, too simple a view, which overvalues input at the expense of productivity and output. By concentrating your efforts towards results, it becomes possible to achieve a healthier and more successful work-life balance. If you have to work over the weekend to clear a long backlog of emails, set a clear limit on the amount of time you’re going to spend, rather than compromising on quality time with family and friends.

3. Switch off to stay fresh

As handheld devices become increasingly powerful and versatile, employees face a growing challenge to rein in digital working hours. Workflows were once overwhelmingly office-based, but with more and more people using their work devices out of normal hours, this is no longer the case.

In some countries, governments have even sought to legislate to protect employees from business cultures where responding to work emails outside working hours is seen as normal and, significantly, expected. This kind of 24/7, ‘always on’ culture isn’t just bad for employees; by reducing concentration and focus, it can chip away at a company’s competitive advantage, ultimately affecting the bottom line.

To prevent such a culture from taking root, companies must prioritise attention management and be clear about their expectations for out-of-hours communication.

4. Give employees control

The proliferation of time management and data gathering apps has equipped businesses and employees with an array of different tools designed to help them work more productively. But there can be a difficult and important balance to strike when using apps ATracker, Timely or iDoneThis.

On the one hand, bosses and employees alike want to get every drop of output from the working day; yet, on the other, it’s important to avoid intrusive policies that could have unintended consequences. If employees are conscious that their work data are being tracked and monitored, the temptation to appear productive could undermine their focus on other, more important tasks.

At the end of the day, an employee needs to feel that they own the data and that they’re free to make mistakes. And bosses have to work with them to produce the usable insights that will benefit the business.

5. Keep things short and simple

The keep-it-simple rule might seem obvious and banal, but it’s easy to forget when we find ourselves dragged in to never-ending email chains. Unnecessary emails and digital messaging waste time and effort and can be serial productivity killers.

Avoid sending short emails to colleagues in the same building when an issue could be addressed more effectively in a quick chat or face-to-face meeting. If it is necessary to send an email to discuss issues and formulate coordinated plans, they should be as concise and simple as possible to maximise productivity.

A recipient of a long and discursive email is very unlikely to absorb all of the points covered: to get your message across, keep it smart, clear and simple.

George Foot, Vice President Europe & Global Marketing, Kensington

Image source: Flickr/Matthew G