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Vox Pop: Patterns for email as work conversation?

Inbox Zero is a system and philosophy that most benefits people who are overwhelmed by a high-volume of mystery meat email. The system works because it's stupid-simple, and the real art comes out of getting fast and ruthless at identifying requests for your time and attention that must be acknowledged or completed vs. the vast majority of stuff that needs very light attention (or can just get deleted).

But, not so fast -- what if, instead, you're receiving a high volume of easily identifiable messages? And what if your main "action" is reading, digesting, and then contributing? That's a bit trickier, as I have learned.

Every time I give the Inbox Zero talk to a tech-heavy group -- and most especially when I talk with engineers -- there's pushback on a couple issues. First, a lot of techies say they love it when everything gets routed through email, and second, they think an Inbox-Zero-type methodology isn't particularly useful for the type of communication that they get all day long. And that's conversations. Lots of conversations.

For many tech folks, email is the ideal and preferred way to avoid meetings and pointless flights. It's where they discuss features, debate implementation, and argue over the best solution to a problem. And that's how they like it. Some companies I visit with tell me they take pride in generating over 1000 person-messages each day. That's their culture, and love it or leave it.

This doesn't mean there's not room for improvement, but of course it's a valid and very real way to work.

Do stay tuned after the jump for your chance to join the conversation with comments and tips for managing conversational email, but first here's my observations on a few patterns that seem to work for a high volume of conversation based email:

  • Threading - you benefit greatly from an email app that lets you view messages grouped by conversation. This makes it easy to focus on one discussion as well as leap ahead as needed without distratction
  • Processing - Regardless of your style, I think it's still very valuable to process to zero on a regular basis, pulling out all the non-conversational emails that can be converted to action or immediately deleted. (more on processing email)
  • Filtering - It still seems valuable to identify lists and conversations that need less attention (or just don't need attention right now) so that you can keep them from grabbing you away from the nitty gritty. (more on filtering email)
  • Standards (esp. on subject and quoting) - Having a "house style" that your team agrees to use for subject lines and quoting will save you much heartache. If you've ever had to catch up on the latest additions to a three-week-old, high-volume thread, you'll instantly know whether everyone was on the same page.
  • Muting - I love mute functionality like that found in GMail. Basically, this let's you say "this is a conversation I don't need to follow any more," and new messages in the thread are archived automatically
  • Save and Search - Short, attachment-free, well-quoted messages make archiving and search a less-than-typical pain, so you can feel fine about saving old messages for as long as they remian useful to you. Then you can just pull them up via search as needed for historical purposes.

The Question to You

If your job requires you to keep up with a very high-volume of conversation email, please share your favorite tricks. Is the high-volume list-based system working for you? What helps you keep on top of things? What bits of Inbox Zero do and don’t help? If you could change one thing about the way your team handles email conversations today, what would it be?

fuzzybunny88's picture

e-mail as a buffer

I'm not sure I'd call my system a preference for e-mail as much as a recognition that some things work better as e-mail, some as IMs and some things people should just pick up the phone or walk down the hall. Every tool deserves a place in the tool box, so long as the tool accomplishes a discretely identifiable task.

I'm definitely trying to get people used to the idea that I may only answer e-mails during two periods a day, but that if they have something quick, I'm available via IM. The issue really revolves around that I need some uninterrupted/uninterruptible chunks of time during the day or I feel like I have ADD, bouncing from issue to issue. Also, to a certain extent, I find that the people who work for me will, if I'm available, use asking me something as a substitute for thinking (this I've learned after years of being instantly available and then wondering why the people working for me don't seem to be developing critical thinking skills).

And anything that involves an extended back and forth, whether internal or external, is more efficiently handled via phone or meeting - even if it's deeply technical.

I'm not sure I buy into the idea that people who communicate substantially through e-mail or IM are socially inept - to some extent it's a recognition that if my time is worth say $300 an hour, I need to save the social backslapping for a time when the firm is getting that value out of it. If someone wants to ask me whether I'd like a report spiral bound or book bound, I'd rather deal with it via IM and not pretend like we're having a meaningful conversation. If I spent two hours on a conference call with a client yesterday and he wants to let me know he just overnighted me the documents we discussed, he and I are probably better served if he e-mails me rather than calls.




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