The five (broken) rules of email etiquette

5 broken rules of email

Our inboxes are a place of escalating madness, and we spend a staggering 28% of our time at work sending, receiving, reading and answering emails —many of which feel unnecessary or frustrating.

Accountants live in their inboxes, and it might be worthwhile understanding what those 2.5 hours a day mean for you in terms of productivity or helping clients. What if you multiplied your billable hour fee times 2.5? Are you making it count?

A well-structured email may not necessarily be a thing of beauty, but it is certainly a thing of rarity. Email is essentially just text, and you can’t read tone or body language in email. Things get lost in translation too easily.

What if we thought about the purpose of email to reduce inbox aggravation? Here are our top 5 rules for getting back to good email etiquette.

#1 Think before replying all 

There's a tendency to gravitate towards the Reply All button, and this is often (seemingly) done without consideration of the circumstances. You wouldn't raise your voice to an entire firm about something that only needed to be voiced to one colleague, so why act this way over email?

Unnecessarily adding people on to an email chain can be an attempt to cover all your bases, but the poor use of ‘Reply All’ is a major source of frustration. A reply of ‘thank you’, for example, needs only be sent to the person you are thanking, not the entire firm. Think twice when hovering over the toolbar and try to choose the simple ‘Reply’. Nobody wants multiple emails in their inbox that have little to do with them and repeat the exact same sentiment.

#2 Have guidelines in place about when not to email 

There are bound to be many things that you deal with over email that would be better done in person or over the phone.

Have your firm set guidelines for the whole team about when to use email, and when it’s more appropriate and efficient to use other channels of communication.

This will be highly beneficial for the management of the firm since everyone tends to use email, chat and telephones differently and what might be run of the mill for them may not be helpful for their peers.

For example, chat —or a tap on the shoulder and your vocal chords if you happen to be in the same room!— could work well for one or two sentence questions and answers. Anything longer than those able to be dealt with via chat can go in a carefully crafted, well-structured email. However,  if the email is likely to go over three or four paragraphs, of if it is likely to be long and require hashing out different scenarios based on a respondent’s answers – set up a time to call or meet in person. If you are concerned about anything being challenged or misunderstood, write up a summary of the meeting for consensus among those in the discussion.

Email is still a very effective way to get in touch but to stop it getting out of hand, it’s important to set up boundaries and expectations clearly.

#3 Be sensible with response times, but don't indulge in unreasonable expectations 

We’re all trying to keep on top of our inboxes and avoid the feeling of inadequacy that arises from a ‘Just checking that you got my last email?’ message popping up. Obviously, you don’t want to be forgetting about replies you owe, but you also don’t want to set the expectations for a response too high.

We asked accountants* when and where did they check emails, and we were surprised to find you do so constantly, (a little bit less often when you are commuting to and from the office.) Often email is treated as a means to get in touch with someone immediately — and the expectation is an instant reply. But working in this way is extremely disruptive.

Within a specific team, or even practice-wide, you could set a blackout period on emails, say – Tuesday from 10am to 12pm – during which time co-workers don’t email each other and instead make some headway on bigger projects. With clients, resisting the urge to reply immediately will have the added benefit of forcing you to think about that reply and make it a worthwhile and complete one. You should, however, aim to respond to emails within 24 hours.

#4 Debrief those added in half-way through the conversation 

There are two things to consider when emailing on a chain and adding someone new into the conversation midway through. First is that most people won’t realise that a new person has been added. Second, the new person has no frame of reference and is bound to be thrilled to have to figure it out by reading through a long chain of emails. In this scenario, behave the way you would in person.

Partners often say that the #1 reason they get emails is FYI. Would it be possible for them to understand what the email is about through the subject line and your FYI note before a never-ending thread?

If you called someone into a meeting halfway through, you would introduce them and give them a rundown of what the meeting was about and why they are there. Same applies in email. You are undoubtedly adding this person for a reason, so highlight it directly: provide context. Call them out and give them a summary of what has been discussed so they can join in, or ask them to do a task related to the project and direct them to the necessary information for completing said task.

#5 Do unto others...  

It’s an old adage that should apply to email etiquette as much as it does to general etiquette. Only send out the kind of emails that you would like to receive, and if you wouldn’t say it in person — don’t email it! This seems so simple, but there’s a likely chance we all experience some degree of rudeness in our inbox on a weekly basis. There is just no place for emailing something you wouldn’t say to another person’s face.

Emails should follow the ethics of reciprocity – friendliness breeds cooperation and this is important in an accountant’s world.

In summary: treat it right!

The problem with email is that we treat it like something it was never meant to be. So, lead by example. Make your emails less frequent and more important by crafting them carefully. Only send out the kind of emails you would like to receive, and actually consider whether email is the best method of communication for the message you need to send.

Share these rules with your team to make all our emailing experiences better and curate our inboxes to offer a more enjoyable experience. Email away!

 * Source: Survey conducted by PracticeIQ (June 2015) to 110 Australian accountants.