I’ve read many blogs claiming to manage or reduce email. But so many of them simply provide tips to manage email and fail to address the existing backlog. I’ve probably written one or two of those myself.
Recently I was listening to a colleague complain about all the email and other notifications he receives. The following day I was approached by a colleague new to Accellis who wanted to work on communication policies to reduce email. These statements got me thinking about the problem differently. Sure, email management tips help, but can we reduce the quantity of email received? So, I’ve been thinking observably over this for a few days now. Here are my thoughts.
Thought One: Change Culture
I never said it was going to be easy. By now most firms have a case management system. Chances are it helps you with many things, but reducing email is not one of them. This could be training, but most likely it’s a broader issue. I think the problem is culture. When you want to communicate a case update, you email everyone involved. If you want to delegate a task, you email that person. When you try to schedule a meeting, you email each other.
If you have case management, it’s time to change the culture. Start checking it. Next time you wonder about the status of the case, check the case management system. Next time you need to delegate a task, don’t email, use the case management system to assign a task.
I can hear the objections already.
“Nobody uses it.”
Then make them. Email them asking them to update the case, assuming it makes sense. If it is your job to update the case, then you update it and stop sending the notifications. When someone sends you an email asking, tell them to check the case. If everyone at the firm updates case notes, customer fields, and everyone checked it, would you receive less email?
Softly “I don’t know how to use it.”
Okay, then learn or stop complaining about your large inbox. Your inbox should be like golf; par should be no more than X inbox items. Your 74,502 inbox items is not a source of pride; it makes you look disorganized.
“We don’t have one.”
Fair point. I would argue that anyone who works on projects should have something to help with task management. You don’t need to run out and buy one, O365 has “Planner” which can meet most task needs.
Thought Two: Use Email Properly
Yes, this is still a culture change. If you put someone on the “To” line, it means you need a response from that person.
If you CC someone, it’s usually a “for your information” (FYI) situation. For reasons above this should be primarily with people outside the firm.
There are other reasons people use the CC internally. These are for mentoring or training purposes. I am okay with this. But once training stops or mentoring is over so does the internal CC. Another reason people CC is case updates or if they are in a situation that involves controversy. We discussed the updates above. In situations that may be controversial, I suggest talking to the person you’re going to CC first. After a conversation that CC may not be needed. Or you can put on your professional pants and take responsibility for the actions and situation instead of hoping “mom and dad” will save you.
Finally, let go of the idea that email is instant. We all know email makes it to your inbox in 1-2 minutes or less, but that doesn’t mean it’s read and responded to in that time. Instead, develop a habit of waiting 24 hours or a business day before bugging someone for a reply. If the communication is urgent, then try calling or walking over to see that person in person.
Thought Three: The Actual Outlook Tips
Here are three Outlook settings that help you organize and manage email.
Use conversations. For those of you that don’t out, Outlook conversations groups your email. So when you receive an email, reply to that email, someone else replies to your reply, etc. they are arranged to appear as one item until you hit the dropdown the way you would in a folder tree. This is a bit of an adjustment, but it makes our next Outlook tip easier and makes it easy to find items in Outlook.
Create an Outlook folder structure with a folder for clients, then a folder within the client for the matter. Once that system is set up, it’s time to file aggressively. Once you have read or replied to an email, file it. With conversations, you can file that entire email conversation in one pass.
Many of you have large inboxes, that will benefit going forward, but what do you do with the items in there already? Create a folder called 2016 or 2017 and take everything from your inbox with the corresponding year and put it in that folder. If you have email beyond two years, make a folder called Older, and everything older than two years goes in that folder. Depending on the number of items a move like this could take a lot of time or cause outlook to crash. So you may want to involve IT.
Flag items that need follow up. If you can’t get to them now, flag them. Make sure your setting time aside each day to get to those flagged items. If they are flagged for more than four days, then follow up is not needed or delegate.
Now some email needs a follow up several days, weeks, or months from when it was received. In this case, make a calendar appointment, attach a copy of the email, the file the email.
Thought Four: Think before you send
I see a lot of internal emails that are redundant or communicates nothing. As you draft an email, ask yourself “what is the purpose of this email?”. If it’s to notify or delegate a task, then you should probably update the case management system.
If you are asking a question, ask yourself if you could find the correct answer on your own first. I’m surprised at the number of emails I receive where people think I know the answer. I’m even more surprised when I catch myself looking in the same system (to which we both have access), then responding with the answer.
Thought Five: Internal Policy
To change the culture, I think a policy with simple guidelines, like those listed above, would help. It creates easy to follow rules and is somewhat trackable/enforceable. When you receive an email delegating a task, you should respond (politely) asking the person to put it on your task list in the case management system. If they don’t know how to, then it’s a training opportunity. If they refuse, it’s a performance management opportunity.
In nearly every blog post I mention training, and I really think technology training is essential for lawyers. An email policy creates many training opportunities to improve workflow and better utilize tools like Outlook, O365, or case management.
I can see policies and rules like those listed above reducing email, at least much of the internal email. However, these are merely my thoughts after a few days of thinking about this topic. I’d love to hear your feedback.