A recent Digit Pulse survey, conducted in the summer of 2023 with nearly 3,000 digital workers, reveals that email is still the most popular form of digital work-communication.
This is despite a steady stream of ‘new kids on the block’, including integrated systems like Slack and MS Teams.
Given the endurance of email as the work-communication tool of choice for many, it is perhaps one of the great modern work-failures that, despite a barrage of guru-led advice, we still don’t really know how to deal with work-email effectively. Problematic behaviours, such as email incivility, failing to resist email interruptions, and succumbing to constantly connecting to work-email out of hours, are widespread, impacting both productivity and wellbeing at work.
However, there is evidence about what works. Drawing on 25 years of research, my colleagues (Prof Tom Jackson, Dr Petros Chamakiotis and Dr Marc Fullman) and I have recently published a major systematic review of the literature in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
We reviewed 62 research studies to identify four ‘super actions’ that have positive impacts on both productivity and wellbeing.
What does the evidence tell us about managing work-email?
Across 62 studies, we found 13 different action categories relating to how people use work-email.
Of these, only four action categories were consistently associated with both positive work-performance and wellbeing outcomes (we refer to this as ‘effectiveness’), and we classed these as work-email super actions.
Other actions had contradictory effects, sometimes helping and sometimes hindering performance or wellbeing, depending on the job or work context.
Super actions, however, had uniformly positive outcomes, and usually revealed that workers were thinking about how their use of email could be helpful to their tasks, to their personal goals, and to the goals of those with whom they worked.
Below I will outline the super actions and explain why they work.
Four super actions for managing work-email
1. Communicate and adhere to work-email access boundaries
Within the confines of their specific job roles and responsibilities, workers who communicate their availability to their colleagues (e.g., with an email-signature or automated reply) were generally more effective.
Such workers would be clear about their work-home boundaries and, if they communicated that they wouldn’t be available between certain times (e.g., weekends, evenings, or when on leave), then they stuck to this. This helped to manage expectations in their email partners and meant that work was less likely to overspill into other areas of life.
2. Regularly triage work-email
Workers who regularly read, responded to, and cleared work-email messages to fit with their other priorities and responsibilities were more effective. This meant monitoring new content alongside existing messages, with actions taken according to shifting levels of importance.
Regular triaging involved workers adjusting their own action plans and making amendments to deal with changing concerns and generally having a broad oversight of their email inboxes and how this related to current and forthcoming tasks and agendas.
3. Only send work-relevant email on work systems
Workers who used the email system only to send work-relevant messages of importance were more effective. Their messages were less likely to be ignored, and they sent and received less email traffic.
These workers tended to avoid using work-email systems to engage in personal or low importance exchanges.
4. Be civil and considerate in work-email exchanges
When engaging in work-email exchanges, effective workers were more likely to be civil, considerate and courteous to their colleagues.
They avoided practices such as delegating tasks without negotiation, did not use a rude, abrupt, or demanding tone, did not engage in ‘absent presence’ (emailing others when in the physical presence of colleagues), and avoided putting pressure on others for an immediate response. They also did not ignore their colleagues’ messages.
Evidence-based approaches to being a super work-emailer
As we move to an increasingly digital world of work, understanding how to effectively communicate via work-email continues to have resonance and importance.
Whilst a rampant ‘how to’ industry continues to proffer advice on inbox-zero, ninja-level practices, and email-avoidant techniques (e.g., ‘email-free Fridays’ or ‘disconnect by 6pm’) and more, our research offers rigorous and evidence-based analysis of what works and why.
Work-email use may differ by job role, industry sector, and over-time, but our review reveals that the application of these four super actions can help workers to better achieve both wellbeing and work performance goals. Organisations are encouraged to convey this to their workers and to work towards developing appropriate cultures of use that are characterised by thoughtful and considered work-email practices.
Civil, considerate emailers did not overuse or misuse ‘cc’, ‘bcc’, and ‘reply-to-all’, and sent messages that were clear and simple. At the heart of this action category is an awareness of the needs of others, and workers who engaged this action were more likely to receive positive and helpful responses, and to get their work done well.