Using email in a virtual team

Historically, many virtual teams have relied on e-mail as one of the main channels for asynchronous communication. Although now there is a tendency to transition from e-mail to more high tech tools, it is, nevertheless, still very much used in day to day communication. According to leaders around 80% of the questions they receive are not urgent and can be addressed by e-mail. Another 15% can be solved with chat or instant messaging, and the remaining 5% are solved over the phone.

Historically, many virtual teams have relied on e-mail as one of the main channels for asynchronous communication. Although now there is a tendency to transition from e-mail to more high tech tools, it is, nevertheless, still very much used in day to day communication. According to leaders around 80% of the questions they receive are not urgent and can be addressed by e-mail. Another 15% can be solved with chat or instant messaging, and the remaining 5% are solved over the phone.

If a team is actively using e-mail, email processing can have significant costs. According to McKinsey research working with email takes approximately 28% of the time. Such a considerable amount of time requires a careful and attentive attitude. After all the effort you put into improving working with mail can lead to a significant increase in the performance of the team. Thus in the day to day activities of virtual teams there are a lot of opportunities for improvement as well as potential challenges related to incorrectly using communication tools.

Emailís main challenges and solutions

Time spent reading unnecessary or redundant information received by e-mail

E-mail is a tool that focuses primarily on the sender, not the recipient, since it is the sender who decides what to send, to whom to send it and how much they will read. If the sender doesnít pay attention to the content and recipients of the message he can take away valuable working time from his colleagues. Andreas Klinger of Product Hunt writes: "Communication feels cheap to do but often adds up to a lot of time costs and very often only results in more communication (unless framed in processes)." To avoid this, the teams agree on the following rules regarding email:

The no spam rule

The essence of this rule is that the sender of the message should carefully consider the list of recipients, sending it exclusively to those who really need it for the purposes of the project. A good practice is when the team agrees in advance about who and in what situations to include in the list to, cc, bcc and what kind of reaction (and timing) is expected from the recipien - bearing in mind whether the email is addressed to him or he is in CC.

People should also be very cautious about using the Reply All feature in answering the email. Although it saves time to respond, we must understand that the follow-up dialogue is not always necessary for all recipients of the original message. And communication related to activities that arenít necessarily work related (informal communication) can be done with the help of other tools such as chats and blogs. This allows the recipient to examine the necessary information at a time and place when he wants to do it and is willing to do it.

The no scaling rule

Keep your text short and focused. Some teams go further and impose even more stringent restrictions on email:
  • Answers no longer than 5 sentences
  • If you can fit all the text of the email in the subject, add [NRN] at the end of the message
Create a subject line that is clear, concise, and informative

Many people prioritize incoming correspondence based on the subject. A correctly formulated subject line must reflect the content of the letter so the receiver knows whether to respond immediately or postpone. For example, if the project has a specific problem, rather than a general subject line such as "Project Status" it is better to write "The project is suffering due to lack of resources." This will attract the required attention.

Some teams agree on a special coding system in the subject line to quickly understand the emails urgency and what to do further: [Action Needed], [Follow-up Needed] and [FYI ... NRN (no response needed)].

Remove extra information when communicating

When maintaining a discussion by means of chain email all the extra information that is no longer relevant, should be removed from the message.

Too many emails overflowing mailbox

In teams where e-mail is actively used for communication employees might be receiving a large number of messages. A study found that employees receive and send on average 105 emails a day. As Scott Berkun writes: "people are so overwhelmed by the waves of e-mail they receive that they protect their psyche by never reading any of it. Instead they skim e-mails quickly and write and send replies even quicker, like a paranoid, drunk blindfolded man pulling the trigger of a fully loaded AK-47". Teams solve this problem in the following ways:

Transferring communication to other tools.

It is a pretty radical approach because it is the recipient who decides what, when and how much to read. For example Team Zapier transferred some aspects of formal communication (status reports, project specs) to a tool for blogging and informal discussions Ė a chat application Slack.

Effective work with incoming mail.

Working effectively here implies a high degree of self-organization as well as a constant application of best practices in the field such as:

The zero inbox rule. In this approach, your inbox has to be cleared every time you are working with it. For this purpose use the following rules:
  • David Allen's 2-Minute Rule: If it takes less than two minutes to respond, respond now
  • Only touch each email once: Do not mark emails unread because you do not know what to do with them
  • FAT: File it, Act on it, or Trash it
  • System folders: In which the letters are moved to further processing
ARCKFUOEWN.jpgConvenient storage.

An easy system that allows you to store correspondence as quickly as possible in order to find it just as quick if you are searching for it.

Effective searching stored messages.

Modern mail programs have a fairly convenient search function. To use it effectively you must also be aware, when writing emails to keep in mind the search terms you might be using in the future if you have to look for it.

Distraction from ongoing work

In software development, maximum productivity is most times achieved through long uninterrupted quiet time. When nobody and nothing distracts. This is difficult to achieve if your computer constantly receives new e-mail. It distracts you from the task at hand and increases the time spent at work. To avoid this, teams usually agree on the following rules:
  • Allocate 2 to 3 sessions of 20-30 minutes to work with e-mail
  • Any notifications of incoming messages are switched off
  • Develop a mechanism to address urgent requests (for example, a telephone call)

Required information

One problem with the use of e-mail is that it canít help all employees get the information they need, for example, due to a wrong choice of message recipients. Instructions written in an email format can get lost in the project correspondence and then they will have to be written again for new employees. To solve this problem, the following approaches usually work:

Make it almost completely transparent.

This approach is used by the Buffer and Stripe. Its essence is that every design email must be viewed by most team members. The effectiveness of this approach is achieved by:
  • Thoughtful use mailing lists
  • Clear rules for sending, read and replying to messages
  • Using filters and labels (folders)

Make mailing information permanent.

This can be achieved by applying different mechanisms for storing mails on the server.

Situations in which you should not use e-mail

One of the necessary skills in working with virtual teams is the ability to choose the communication medium that is relevant to the situation. Of course, e-mail is not suitable for all communication. There are times when you need to transfer sensitive content, which can cause confusion. In these situations, it is better to use synchronous communication, allowing you to convey more contextual information (such as phone or video).

Do not use e-mail in the following situations:

  • To solve interpersonal problems
  • To send "bad" news
  • To carry out appraisals or give constructive feedback
  • To resolve urgent issues requiring immediate attention

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