With so many options for work communication these days, email is still king. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, it’s estimated that employees spend on average 25% of their time at work sending and replying to work-related emails, so communicating successfully with colleagues, managers, and clients via email is a key skill to have for advancing your career.
When email is right at your fingertips from the keyboard of your iPhone, it’s easy to get overly casual and nonchalant about using it. You may be simply falling into certain habits with your email style (overzealous emoji users, we’re looking at you) that could be subtly hurting your performance and your growth within a company.
Sharpening your email communication could be that little extra something that helps you thrive in your current position and show that you’re ready for the next level. Whether you’re the boss or are headed in that direction, these pro tips will help you fill your inbox with effective conversations and impress everyone you come into (virtual) contact with.
1. Get down to business right away.
Everyone is busy, including you, so sometimes it’s better to get right to the point. Cofounder of Managing People Better, LLC Leigh Steere’s philosophy is to cut to the chase in both the subject line and the first paragraph of an email. Start with a “call to action” in the subject line, like “Input needed for XYZ project by Friday, 8/24/19, end of day” alerting the reader to exactly what task needs to be completed.
That’s not to say that you can’t start off the email with a quick personal, friendly greeting to address the person. But in order to encourage the most efficient response, start with the bottom line, like the request or issue that needs to be discussed right at the top of the message. Then, Steere recommends, follow up with the supporting details in bullet points or separate paragraphs so that no part of the request is left out.
2. Know your audience.
In certain instances, you should adjust your tone depending on whether you’re emailing with a work peer versus a senior-level employee. With a manager or a similar-level superior, start out using a more formal tone, notes certified career and workplace expert at Zety, Michael Tomaszewski. Then you can change your tone for how to continue the conversation based on their response.
Steere goes another step further, saying it’s better to err on the side of caution no matter who you’re addressing in an organization. “You never know when a manager might see your emails, so write as if your manager will see your emails to colleagues, clients, or any other stakeholder,” she says. “Use professional language, without slang, abbreviations, etc. in all business emails — to colleagues and managers.
If you’re contacting an executive who is much more senior than you (let’s say your boss’s boss), Steere suggests running that idea by your boss directly first, before crafting a formal yet concise note. It might also be a good idea to have your boss proofread the message unless the matter involves an issue with your boss’s behavior; in that case, go straight to HR, Steere advises. “And document that you’ve done this,” she adds. “This type of thing is best handled through in-person meetings, not emails.”
3. Adapt to your company’s email communication style.
Professional emails don’t have to be void of your personality, but your tone your company’s email style can help you be a more effective communicator. If you’re working in a fast-paced startup environment, your company’s email style might have more of a casual tone, but if you’re working in a corporate environment, it’ll likely be more formal, especially when addressing clients.
Within your own team, taking the time to learn your coworkers’ or manager’s individual email style could actually help you get through over email more efficiently. “Some may like to use bullet points, some may respond with a simple ‘okay,’ regardless of the request or issue, and some may ignore anything after the first three sentences of information,” says Red Clover HR consultant Eric Mochnacz. “Once you become familiar with your colleagues’ email styles, start to adjust your style accordingly and as appropriate.”
4. Keep your cool.
This should be a no-brainer, but we can’t reiterate this enough: “Even if you feel very strongly about an issue, it’s not a good idea to vent your feelings in an email,” says KIS Finance HR and business consultant Sue Andrews. You’ll almost always regret what you sent in a quick-tempered virtual tirade.
If you must, go ahead and get it all out there on the page (well, screen) as a draft (you may want to take out the recipient’s address so you can’t accidentally send this version). But then take a pause — whether it’s just 10 minutes or a whole day. “Come back to it when you’ve had the chance to reflect and think the issue through carefully,” Andrews says.
5. Know when to take an email “offline” or onto Slack.
If you’re a manager, you’ll need to make the call between which conversations should be had in person and which ones are fine to have via email. “If an email exchange starts simple enough, but begins to escalate, always recommend a phone call or in-person communication next,” Mochnacz says. “It helps avoid miscommunication or misinterpreted tone, especially if the correspondents are feeling defensive.”
But for critical conversations about employee performance, stick to email, since they’re an important part of the documentation process for managing that feedback. You’ll want a record of communication in a time-stamped email, and then maybe even have a meeting.
With less serious matters, you can save your colleagues time and spare their inbox with a quick ping in a chat app like Slack. “In our company, we use Slack for more casual things like ordering food, signaling availability, etc. because it’s a quick way to reach someone,” Tomaszewski says.
6. Remember that work email isn’t always private.
Something that newbie work emailers tend to forget is that your work email technically belongs to your company, not you, and is fully monitorable. And in the age of social media, an inflammatory email could easily be made public in seconds (how many times has this happened on Twitter?). So all the more reason to keep work email professional!
Andrews adds, “Work emails form part of the formal written records of your company and could be used as admissible documents in court.” So, those email messages can be shared as part of any legal proceedings your company undergoes, and could even be used directly against you. So be extra careful about emailing any sensitive information or commentary about any other employee or client.
7. Don’t fall into bad email patterns.
Lastly, there are a few red-flag email behaviors that’ll brand you as a rookie emailer, so try to avoid these.
- Stop apologizing and starting emails with “Sorry to bother you ….” Steere says, “The very act of sending the email is a small intrusion on the reader’s time. If you truly need to communicate via email, keep it to the point, without apologies.” And apologizing throughout the email just gets in the way of making your point, and erodes confidence in you as the sender.
- Don’t spam coworkers with multiple emails every time you have a new thought. “Keep a running list of things you need to ask your colleague or manager and send a list once or, at most, twice a day,” Steere recommends.
- Try to avoid lengthy email treatises. Matthew Burr, founder of Burr Consulting, suggests keeping all your emails in the one-to-two paragraph range, because anything more than that might cause the recipient to skip over it or push the message aside for later.
- Remind yourself that you’re not texting, so try to eliminate emoji use, even if you’re sending an email from your phone, Tomaszewski says. “Not everyone is a fan of them in corporate environments, so I wouldn’t recommend using them in email communication.”