This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.
There are many ways to complete that sentence. I am always curious to see people’s first reactions to the prompt; it often depends on their role, and the day they’ve had.
The reality is that email is frustrating, helpful, necessary, overwhelming, constant, confusing, problematic, and essential. Email is a vital tool, a necessary evil, a way of life, a means to an end, and… not going anywhere.
Long before the pandemic, researchers calculated that the average American worker received 150 and sent 40 emails per day, spending roughly 28% of their day in the medium. How much that has changed is not yet clear. With the rise in video conferencing and messaging channels like Teams and Slack, some of our email usage has found new homes. But because so many of us are still – and will likely remain – remote and/or hybrid workers, email’s importance has also grown.
We should appreciate the fact that email, invented about fifty years ago, is still a highly valuable tool. We can send each other typed letters – with accompanying packages of documents and even embedded images or videos – instantaneously. We can personalize our letters to our own style, and send them to thousands of people at once – we just need to know or guess their address. Email is remarkable.
Yet email is also a source of stress and frustration because it bogs us down. We get included in more messages than we need. We get caught up in endless back-and-forth threads that could have been resolved with a one-minute conversation. We struggle to respond to everything that arrives in our inbox. We get upset at the tone with which someone makes a request, and it can distract us from our work and damage our relationship.
To refine our email skillset – how we write and read messages, manage the flow, and generally optimize our use of the medium – we should think of email not just as a tool to communicate. We should look more deeply and consider the critical functions that email serves in our professional lives.
Email helps us get the work done. It is how we make requests, ask for clarification, provide instructions, share decisions, reinforce accountability and timeline, propose new business, initiate conversations, introduce ideas, etc. It may not always feel powerful, but with such a large amount of our internal and external communication flowing through email, it is a key factor in helping us drive action and ensure outcomes.
Email helps us build and maintain relationships. It is how we stay in contact with our colleagues and partners, especially if we, or they, are remote. It gives us a means to check in without having to get on someone’s calendar. We can be introduced to people over email and collaborate with them for years, develop a strong relationship, without ever hearing a voice or seeing a face. Email connects us.
Email helps us build and maintain presence and credibility. It is one of the important ways that we express ourselves and become known for our style and approach. Email keeps us top of mind for partners, clients, vendors, direct reports whom we do not see regularly. Email helps us demonstrate our ability to accomplish tasks, work efficiently, and meet and exceed expectations. Reputation is built on repetition, which makes email an important factor in how we are known and perceived by others.
Used well, email propels us forward in our work and our career. Used poorly, email can cause distraction and delay, expose our struggles and shortcomings, and sew doubt in our potential.
Remembering the broad functionality of email, considering the ways it can help and hinder our work, enables us to use the tool more intentionally. It helps us think beyond the words on the screen and pay closer attention to the perspectives of the people and the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. It helps us consider not just the interaction, but its short- and long-term implications. And with hundreds of emails going in and out every day, we all have plenty of opportunities to do so.
We believe that great communication skills change the world. We transform people and organizations of all sizes with simple, repeatable techniques, through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and asynchronous learning.
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