Email - Good News and Bad News
by Norm Cadsawan

As the business world becomes more virtual and we are all faced with working with people who are not in our proximity, we will need to acquire “virtual” skills, i.e., the ability to deliver results when the rest of our team or organization is scattered around the world.

Collaboration through email is one example of this complex transition to virtual business.

  • How many times have you read an email with a misspelling?
  • How many times have you been unclear about the action you’re expected to take after reading an email?
  • How many times have you wanted to call the person who sent you the email to get a better understanding of the message but the sender hadn’t included his phone number?

More and more people are working in teams and organizations that are not “co-located”; that is, team members are dispersed around the country and, in many cases, around the world. This is an unstoppable trend due to the changing nature of business.

When distributed teams and virtual teams are the norm, and when we work from our homes, vehicles, airplanes, from different companies, countries, and cultures, what are we going to do to make sure we’re properly using one of the most popular technology tools – email?

The upside of email is also its downside: convenience. We use email because it’s fast and convenient and we can store it, delete it, or react to it instantly. Yet the instantaneous nature of email is a huge problem because people often don’t think deeply when they use email.

Corporations have tried to establish “Email Protocols,” setting a number of guidelines for the proper use of this tool. Regrettably, while well intentioned and rich in valuable information, these protocols are not taken seriously, mostly because they are too long and complex. Furthermore, they are most often simply deployed by “throwing it over the fence”, that is, casually handed out during a staff meeting.

The investment in an email protocol is well worth the effort. It will save time by improving communication and avoiding misunderstandings that may result in confrontation or reduction in productivity. The right way to deploy a protocol is to train the users and make it an important issue, for example, by reviewing it regularly during staff meetings and coaching employees frequently on the proper use of email.

Here are some solid suggestions for improving the quality and consistency of business email in a “distributed” environment:

  • Include your phone number and address in your signature. Too many people don’t do this. Give the recipient the option to easily phone you.
  • Cover one single item of business in each email message. For distributed teams, emails have replaced the printed memo as announcement, reminder, and call to action. We coach our clients to send separate messages with individual subject headings. This makes it easier for the reader, allowing them to understand, review, and react to each subject logically.
  • Make it crystal clear what actions are required of each recipient (e.g. “John, please develop a database of all Midwestern customers by the end of this week”. “I will need the database by Wed., Nov. 16, at 2 pm EST, please”. Ambiguity here can cost the virtual team precious time.
  • Be judicious in your use of group addresses. There may well be no need to copy all 47 members of the team on every memo.
  • When someone sends you an email saying that she wants to do business with you, call her on the phone immediately. It’s important to elevate the level of communication as soon as possible.
  • If you have something emotional to share, it’s best to do it in person or on the phone. Understanding is gained through the voice, body language, and facial expressions. Too many people use email as a shield — to avoid unpleasant confrontations — and they end up alienating the recipient.

Let’s face it; email is a convenient, fast, and valuable tool in our distributed team environment. Like any tool, it can facilitate or hinder communication. Used in concert with face-to-face meetings, email is an exceptional way to share information, foster creative thinking, and facilitate critical personal meetings.

The move to a more virtual environment, where we collaborate with people who are at a distance, is gaining momentum. We need to change our processes and most of all to refine our communication skills to ensure that all our projects, tasks, and methods of communication deliver results.


Norm Cadsawan, Senior Consultant with Rapidinnovation, is a marketing executive, program manager and management consultant in the area of Distributed and Virtual teams. Norm leverages his experience in distributed program management and collaborative technology implementation to assist companies in developing frameworks for rapid achievement of business objectives through the improvement of distributed team performance. Norm holds a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering and an MBA in Marketing and Information Technology, both from Case Western Reserve University. He has also done research in the area of Distributed and Virtual Teams as well as collaborative practices for non-collocated teams. Visit Rapidinnovation - www.rapidinnovation.com .

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Copyright 2002 by Norm Cadsawan. All rights reserved.

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