Avoiding the e-mail tidal wave

Ross Bentley looks at a new best-practice guide to help companies get the best out of their e-mail

Ross Bentley looks at a new best-practice guide to help companies get the best out of their e-mail

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

Website: www.surfcontrol.com/

E-mailing procedures
Sending e-mails

  • 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.

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