Why one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for email

It’s the end of a long working day full of meetings and, just before you leave your office, you realise you haven’t responded to an email from a key client. Feeling slightly guilty, you head back to your desk and spend the next few minutes writing them an apology and answering their various questions. Breathing a sigh of relief, you hit ‘send’, only to see a message pop up on screen: ‘Emails cannot be sent from this account after 6pm. Access will be restored at 9am’.

What?!

In our last two blog posts, we explored the pros and cons of email in the contemporary workplace. We’re definitely not alone in noting how it can both help and hinder us at the same time. Over the last few years, organisations have sought to better understand the impact email can have, and put in place policies to improve the situation.

Some notable news stories in recent times have described large organisations limiting employees’ ability to send or receive emails after a certain point in the evening. These were instigated with the best of intentions: to stop employees’ personal lives being impacted by emails after working hours. But as the fictional scenario above illustrates, it doesn’t always end well.

The main problem with these initiatives is that they don’t work for everyone. Time-based email rules assume that everyone works to the same schedule and in the same way. It assumes a one-size-fits-all solution will work when, as we know, email is an area where one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

Think about it. What about the working parents who wanted to leave the office slightly early, spend time with their young children and then finish off emails in the early evening? Fixed time email access doesn’t work for them. What about the frequent business traveller who finds herself unable to productively use email while sitting in a hotel room far away from home? What about employees who want to support a colleague or client in a different time zone, even if it’s after working hours? Again, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work.

Another practical downside with this approach is that it doesn’t stop people writing emails, just sending them. So employees continue to write and write and then send them just as soon as the server allows the next morning. Result? A glut of emails arriving in everyone’s inboxes first thing in the morning. Not a great start to the day, right?

This top-down approach to email management won’t work because it essentially sends out the message ‘We know what’s best for you’, when it can’t account for individual working practices and preferences. It can also lead to all kinds of unintentional consequences like mountains of early morning emails – or rushing to send emails before the evening ‘window’ closes. For every unhelpful rule imposed from above, employees will find some kind of workaround.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, as we discussed in our previous blog post, a lack of email norms within organisations is frequently cited as a problem. What kind of norms? For example: when to send an email, rather than pick up the phone. How quickly to respond to different kinds of emails. What kind of information is best shared electronically and which deserves a face-to-face meeting. Establishing norms and clarifying expectations takes a lot of the guesswork out of managing emails.

So, rather than constructing rigid rules to control email use, organisations might get a better result by investing time in clarifying norms and expectations and setting principles for good, effective and healthy email use.

This would help those working flexibly, those in receipt of late night emails and those in contact with colleagues and clients on the other side of the world. Which is what email is really all about when you think about it: flexible communication.

What kinds of norms would you like organisations to clarify for employees? Let us know in the comments below.

And look out for our next posts in this series, when we’ll set out our recommendations for how individuals and organisations can take specific action to improve their email situation.

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