E-mail - can't live with it, can't live without it. The most used and, arguably, the most useful desktop application in the workplace, has for many companies become a monster. The growing need to manage e-mail traffic is slowly chipping away at the working day, security and legal issues abound and stress levels creep ever higher coping with it.
A gaggle of recent statistics on e-mail reflect the growing size of the problem. In 2000, Ferris Research estimated 25% of working hours was spent reading and answering e-mails, while eMarketeer found 42% of users checked their e-mail when on holiday. Earlier this year, the MetaGroup said 5 billion e-mails are sent each day, worldwide and it predicted this number would swell to 35 billion by 2005.
We love e-mail, we can't do without it, but we risk drowning in an ocean of CCs and BCCs.
Organisations are beginning to realise their staff can't have unfettered use of e-mail. Many already deploy anti-virus and filtering software and issue acceptable use policies to new staff at induction. According to Steve Purdham, chief executive at Web and e-mail filtering software specialist Surfcontrol, companies are taking these steps to combat the threats posed by e-mail on four fronts.
- Employee productivity: personal e-mails, jokes, games and other non-work related e-mails are labelled as "productivity viruses" by Purdham. How many hours of lost productivity can your company afford? How do you get the work/personal e-mail balance right?
- Network performance: a 5Mbyte attachment file of a screensaver consumes the same bandwidth as more than 160 plain text e-mails.
- Legal liability: companies realise they need to protect their staff from any sexist or racist e-mails, while any e-mail sent from work can be interpreted as representing the company and is legally binding.
- Security: according to a report by Vanson Bourne, two out of three UK firms have suffered a virus attack.
While these formal controls go some way to reigning in the worst excesses of e-mail use, they can't guarantee total relief from all its ills. The very nature of e-mail communication means users require a large degree of autonomy when using it.
"But," says Purdham, "e-mail messages are often composed a lot more quickly than a company letter to a client might be. It is important to ensure staff realise e-mails are a form of corporate communication."
For this reason, Surfcontrol is next week releasing a best practice guide on e-mail use. This, says Purdham, can help IT managers put together an informal e-mail use policy to complement existing measures.
E-mail style and content
- Keep it short and to the point. Stick with short plain-text paragraphs
- Before sending, proof-read to make sure your message is understandable and appropriate. It is too easy to respond quickly without thinking first
- Don't assume other people will share your sense of humour
- Don't send sensitive or emotional messages. If you are angry, re-read it after you have calmed down
- Be aware of what impression people will get of you from your e-mail. Err on the side of formality in your writing unless you know you can be more casual
- Don't send an e-mail if it could embarrass you or your organisation
- Make sure the context of the e-mail is clear. Use meaningful subject lines and quote or include the text of the e-mail to which you are responding
- Avoid "mail storms" - long discussions sent to a distribution list
- Be careful about your replies. Only reply to the sender and include other recipients only if they need to know
- Understand how to use CC and BCC. Resist the temptation to use BCC as a political tool when e-mailing colleagues with their boss blind-copied in the same message
- If you are sending to many recipients, make sure the message makes clear who actions the recommendations
- Use upper and lower-case letters as in a normal sentence. Don't use all capitals
- Beware of gimmicks such as smileys or fancy fonts - this is very informal
- Avoid currency symbols which may change during transmission
- Never add an attachment unless it has been specifically requested
- Avoid sending an attachment if you can just type the text in an e-mail
- Attach Word documents in Rich Text Format to remove any program scripts and macros
- Use file compression software for large attachments
- Make sure the recipient has the application to open the attachment
- Arrange that attachments over a certain size are sent by a method other than e-mail
- Do not send software programs by e-mail as the recipients' e-mail filter software may stop them.
Source: Surfcontrol E-mail Guide
- Don't send a message again if you are unsure the original got through. The recipient may not have responded yet
- Save only relevant messages
- Don't use the "Urgent" flag too often. People will learn to give your e-mail the same priority as other e-mail
- Don't use "Read receipt" and "Flag for follow-up" indiscriminately. Use only to verify that an important action has been carried out
Storing and clearing
- Each person has a set amount of disc space for their mailbox; if someone needs more space they must ask the IT department. Does everyone know how to archive?
- When managing projects via e-mail over a long period of time, ensure that e-mails for the project are stored in one place.
Dealing with spam
- Never reply to spam
- If you register for something online, ensure you uncheck the box that allows you to be kept informed of changes
- When subscribing to a newsletter, keep your subscription confirmation e-mail in another folder to remind you how to cancel the subscription later
- Take advantage of your e-mail program's ability to bin spam, using rules. Take care not to create rules that could bin useful e-mail.
This was first published in November 2001