Establish Team Ground Rules for Using eMail

May 30, 2012 3 Comments by

Change Agent Tip #32

Over the past couple posts I’ve introduced several things Change Agents can do to take control of their individual email inboxes and increase their effectiveness with this critical communication tool. Another angle worth exploring to improve communication effectiveness is your team’s use of email.

Today I’ll propose a set of ten “ground rules” that teams should consider as they use email day-to-day. Each of these tips can reduce the quantity of messages, focus the dialogue that takes place through email and increase the overall quality of your email communication.

Let’s start with setting appropriate expectations when we write emails…

Ground Rule #1: Be Clear About What You Want.

What Do You Want From Me? If your email requires action on the part of the receiver, then openly set that expectation up front.

Teams often waste time volleying emails back and forth asking for clarity regarding expectations… Save everyone’s time by explicitly asking for what you need. (Example: “Review this document and provide your feedback by Thursday at 5pm.”)

Ground Rule #2: Respond Promptly.

Time is of the Essence: Agree to a standard rule for how quickly team members are expected to respond to emails. For example, if your team were to set a “24-Hour Turn-Around Rule”, team members could expect to get most responses either the same day of the next.

Of course, it’s reasonable to make an exception for people who are on vacation or out of the office. Consider asking them to use the “out-of-office” feature and set a target for how quickly they should respond to emails once they return.

Ground Rule #3: Have Rules for “After Hours” Email.

Unplug at Some Point: One of the great things about email is that it’s available 24/7. That’s also one of the bad things about email. 

Some folks prefer to answer email using their smartphones as it comes in and some people (like the guy on the left) can barely take their eyes off these addictive devices even when they probably should pay attention to other things…

I’d encourage Change Agents to help their teams decide in advance how email is to be handled within the team during non-work hours. Many people I know answer email at all hours of the night while others prefer to “leave work at work”.

With all the variation in lifestyles that can exist within teams, it’s good to get on the same page about what team members will expect from each other in this area.

Ground Rule #4: Use the “To:” & “CC:” fields wisely.

You Talkin’ to Me? Many emailers simply dump all addressees into the To: line and never use the CC: (Courtesy Copy) option. However, the difference between these two fields can be used to your team’s advantage.  I once worked for a CEO who set the following rule for everyone who worked in his organization: “If you need my action, put me in the To: field. For everything else, use the CC: field.” It helped to keep everyone in the loop without generating tons of unnecessary messages.

Ground Rule #5: Turn Email Off at Some Point.

Quittin’ time is Quittin’ Time. We’ve all received that last minute rush-rush email as we’re packing up to leave at 6:15pm. Of course, it screams for immediate attention.  Should you give it a quick response – or wait until the morning when it can get your full attention?  Ease this dilemma by helping the team set a workday limit for when you can expect people to answer emails and when it’s not reasonable to expect a response to anything beyond emergency requests.

Ground Rule #6: One Topic per Email.

It’s Called T.M.I. Baby: A good rule of thumb is to keep each exchange focused on one idea or one problem/solution. Communication can get confusing when too many topics get caught up in a given email chain. (…especially if you understand “your half of the message” but have no real need to be involved in the other half…) Simplify the process by sticking to one topic per email – especially if the subjects you are addressing may have slightly different target audiences.

Ground Rule #7: Use Attachments for “Heavy” Content.

Grow Attached. Team members can save each other the hassle of scrolling through 14-page emails by including long-winded stuff as an attachment. Summarize discussions in the body of the email and refer to the attached detail as needed.

It’s often hard to guess how graphics, charts, text and tables will show up on the receiver’s device, so putting the more complex material into an attachment that opens natively on the person’s device can make email much easier to read. It also allows the reader to save the attachment separately and reduce the size of their email inbox.

Ground Rule #8: If You Must Text Using Email: Do It Wisely.

Use EOM and NNTR to Save Time. With the advent of ubiquitous integrated smartphones, email can be just as quick as texting. Savvy senders can use the subject line as they would use a text message. Here are two subject-line time-savers that were brought to my attention a while back:

EOM = End Of Message:  The subject line is the entire email. There’s nothing in the body. Finish the subject line with EOM and your readers don’t even need to open it to get the message.

NNTR = No Need To Respond: This email is just informational.

While I don’t use either of these regularly, I know more than a few people who swear that these monikers save time and confusion when passing along quick bits of information.

Ground Rule #9: Use a “Thesis Sentence”

This is not my High School English teacher... Just a guy he introduced me to a while back.

Mister Field Was Right: My High School English teacher encouraged us to start every writing assignment with a single, clear sentence that told the entire story of the paper. (He also introduced us to J.R.R. Tolkien before Middle Earth became cool – but that’s another, even better story…)

He suggested that my “thesis statement” should signal what the reader could expect to spend their time learning from my paper. It would also help them decide if it was worth reading. (If you fear that this may be a risky proposition, then perhaps you might reconsider if the email is necessary?)  Do the same thing with your team’s emails. Use the Subject line or the first line of your email’s body for this purpose and you’ll help your team get each exchange off to a good start.

Ground Rule #10: Leave Breadcrumbs.

Who You Gonna Call? Finally, nothing can be more frustrating than searching for a lost phone number or an alternate email address when trying to follow up on a message. Save your team the trouble and the time by insisting that everyone use the ‘signature block” element in your email software to standardize on the inclusion of basic contact information at the bottom of each email. OBTW: I typically advise clients to avoid putting logos in signature blocks unless they can be whittled down to a very tiny file size.

A Few Rules Can Go a Long Way: These email ground rules may not work for every team, but I have seen them work to help some groups reduce the confusion and overload that can be caused by email misuse. Let me know if your team has even better ground rules and I will share them in a future post.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other “ground rules” have worked for your team to help clear up email confusion and keep the lines of communication open?
  2. Does your team use other texting shortcuts like those mentioned in ground rule #8?
  3. Do you read and respond to email at all hours of the night and day, or do you turn it off and leave it off when you are away from the office?



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3 Responses to “Establish Team Ground Rules for Using eMail”

  1. MASTER Communications | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] to ignore other critical message due to sheer information overload. If you don’t believe me, read my recent post on email ground rules or try including “Company-All” on the CC: line of your next few emails and see if you […]

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Tim, Great suggestions. I’ll add them to the follow-up list.
    I have to admit that having an iPhone with multiple email boxes for clients in multiple time zones has made it nearly impossible for me to “turn off email”! I find it hard to resist the temptation to respond all hours of the day. Sometimes the only way to fight that urge is to leave my phone in another room…

  3. Tim Eiler says:

    1.What other “ground rules” have worked for your team to help clear up email confusion and keep the lines of communication open?

    If there is more than 1 ’round-trip’ in an email thread, get up and get face to face with the main person/people in the thread. If face to face won’t work for some reason (geography), pick up the phone. At very least and as a last resort, get on IM.

    2.Does your team use other texting shortcuts like those mentioned in ground rule #8?

    EOM = End of Month (we replace your EOM with End Msg)
    EOW = End of Week
    EOD = End of Day
    NLT = No Later Than
    NET = No Earlier Than

    3.Do you read and respond to email at all hours of the night and day, or do you turn it off and leave it off when you are away from the office?

    I do pay less attention outside the workday, but I don’t turn access off completely.

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