Getting the most out of emails at work

Anyone with more than 30 years of work experience can tell you how email has changed business. Maybe your boss has told you how it’s changed work: You can get answers to questions much faster, reference old conversations with a quick search in your inbox, and even work remotely now because of it. But like all types of communication, you need to use it well to get the most out of it.

Use it well and your coworkers will know what a great job you do. Use it poorly and you risk everyone thinking you’re a fool. Sometimes it’s a fine line between the two and being on one side or the other can influence if you get the next promotion.

As email has taken over the world, some people have learned to use it well and others just get by. Unfortunately, the way people prefer to use email changes from company to company and office to office, but there are a few common principles for communicating well no matter where you work.

One of the keys to using email well is knowing when to use another form of communication. In today’s work environment, there is no shortage of ways to communicate: Email, instant messenger, phone calls, texts, and face to face communication. For sensitive topics, face to face (or video chat if you work remotely) is the best. Sometimes you need to see each other’s body language to get the full message across.

Phone calls are great for quick and urgent conversations. If you need a decision quickly from your boss, giving her a call is a great way to go. How many times have you had a meeting with someone in person, but when the phone rings the other person interrupts your conversation to answer it? It happens all the time. There’s something about a phone ringing that makes everyone think the call is urgent and important, and that’s why phone calls are great for quick questions.

Email is good for things that will need to be referenced later, aren’t time sensitive, and require some consideration by the recipient before replying.

When you’re on the receiving side of emails, use inbox rules effectively. Two of the more effective tips are highlighting your boss’s emails in a different color and your boss’s boss’s emails in another color. That will allow you to pay extra attention to them. Your boss likely sends you emails for things that you directly need to work on so you will have an easier time tracking your projects and deadlines.

Your boss’s boss will likely include you on emails that are more long term in nature, such as emails for your department’s strategic priorities, interdepartmental projects, or industry news. This will give you a better sense of your company’s goals. As I’ve written before, understanding these goals can give you an advantage for building job security and determining your company’s financial health: Two things that will help you get promoted.

Also use inbox rules to file emails on particular subjects to certain folders. If you have projects working with a particular client, you might want to have all emails to and from that client go to an “ABC Project” folder. That will help you reference to those emails faster in the future and give you a quick way to track the communication on the project. It will also keep you less distracted since you will only look into those folders when you want to work on that project, which can increase your productivity. Just make sure you go through all the folders once a day, likely first thing in the morning or before you leave at night, and read through the emails. You don’t want to miss an important email from HR just because you’re automatically sending their emails to a “Company Social Events” folder.

As another tip, keep a folder in your inbox named “Feedback” where you store a record of your accomplishments, praise from coworkers, completed assignments, and feedback from your boss. When the time for your annual review comes around, you can refer back to this folder as a list of what you worked on during the year and how it turned out. (And if you’re interested in negotiating your salary down the road, keeping this record of feedback and what you’ve accomplished can be useful for making your case for a raise.)

If you use Outlook, checkout this link to learn how to setup inbox rules: Manage email messages by using rules. If you use Gmail, checkout this link: Create rules to filter your emails. If you use Hotmail, just kidding, no one uses Hotmail.

Sending a clear and action-oriented email is more difficult than being on the receiving end of an email.

Step one of writing a clear email is to know what you want as a result of the email. Do you want advice from the recipient? Are you only telling the recipient some information and don’t need a response? Are you trying to schedule a meeting? It’s a good idea to only have one objective from the email and to plan around that.

Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. What level of formality do you need when you talk to this person? Write your email in that level of formality. How will she feel about what you are writing? If it’s a sensitive subject, you might want to send an email to schedule a time to talk in person. If it’s not a sensitive subject then you can get straight to the point in the email. What follow up questions will the recipient have? Anticipate and answer as many of these questions as you can in the email.

Let’s go on to two example emails to demonstrate how to craft a great email. The first email is a weekly status check to a client on behalf of the entire team. It purely provides information to the client and does not need a reply.

To: [client] [The To line is for people who need to reply to the email or who the email is directly addressed to.]

CC: [team member 1], [team member 2], etc. [The CC line is for anyone who needs to know what’s going on but doesn’t need to take action on the email. In many business emails, that’s unfortunately too many people…]

Subject: Weekly status check-in [The client probably expects this email every week so keep the subject line short and consistent every week.]

Hi [client],

The weekly status report is below. [This is a regular, expected email so get straight to the point. The topic isn’t controversial or difficult to talk about so no need to gently ease into the subject.]

Thank you for your team’s help getting us the data this week. We have analyzed the dataset and started running regressions on it. There have been no issues running the regressions so far. [Talk about the first point, in this case what work was done this week and a thank you for the client’s assistance.]

Next week, we plan to have some of the analysis complete and can start making the final report for your team. We will let you know if we need assistance but we don’t plan on it at this time. [The previous paragraph talked about last week, whereas this paragraph talks about next week. Since it’s a separate train of thought, it goes in a different paragraph.]

No reply needed. [This takes the pressure off the client to think of a response. She can still reply with “Thanks for the update.” if she wants, but she doesn’t have to.]


[Your name]

Bear with me on the lack of specifics in the email. Each company sends status reports to their clients differently. But that email template should give you a guide for deciding who goes on the To line of an email, how to group your points into separate paragraphs, and how to let the reader know that you don’t need a reply.

The other email we will look at is for when you need advice on something from your boss.

To: [boss]

Subject: Question about forecasting inventory for the XYZ Project [Let your boss know that you have a question about a certain topic. This will let your boss know how important the email is based the XYZ Project’s priority. It also lets your boss know that she will need to spend a little more time on this email since you are asking a question instead of just providing information.]

Hi [boss],

As you know, I am working on the financial analysis for the XYZ Project. I completed the statements of cash flow projection for the next 12 months earlier this week. That went smoothly. [Give a little context and status report even though she probably knows this information. It helps her get into the mindset to remember your project since she has so many other projects to manage.]

I moved on to forecasting the income statement, but I’m having trouble with it and would like your input. In particular, what document should we use to forecast inventory for the next 12 months? [Be very clear about what question you are asking. Also, you’re more likely to get a quick reply if you ask “Yes/No” questions, but if you need a detailed answer with a “who/what/when/where/how” question, plan for a longer wait time before getting a reply.]

Here are some solutions that might work:

  1. Brian has some reports from our inventory management software with industry averages. The reports are attached to this email. They are reliable reports but they are not specific to our company.
  2. The warehouse has the numbers for the past 12 months. I could use that to estimate future inventory but we will have a lot of guessing in our numbers.
  3. I can use the projections from the sales department. My concern is that it is based on sales quotas rather than inventory numbers which might be too optimistic.

[If you present a problem, also provide possible solutions with some positives and negatives about each choice. Don’t make your boss too much or he might think he’s doing too much of your job. And give your boss as much information as you can which is why this person is attaching the inventory reports to the email. It will allow his boss to see if those reports will work.]

Can you let me know which option you think is best? [This is a good action oriented question to end the email. The boss can simply reply with: “Use option 2”. You are taking the work off your boss so you will get an answer faster and more accurately.]


[Your name]

In a previous article, I wrote a sample email for setting up an in person conversation about a sensitive subject. Take a look at it through this link How to ask your boss for help without looking stupid.

Using email can be tricky, but learning to make your coworkers’ lives easier by writing good emails is well worth the time investment. Staying on top of your emails and getting quick, helpful replies from your coworkers will make you more productive. It will also make working with you more enjoyable for those receiving your emails.

Give these principles a try to increase your productivity at work.

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