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10 Commandments of Email Communications

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To yield expected results, a distributed project team must first speak the same language when it comes to communications. 

With that in mind, I developed a basic set of email communications rules called the Project Communication Decalogue. I require everyone on my team to adhere to it when emailing each other, and I introduce it the first time I meet with a new team or member. When everyone is on the same page, it makes for leaner, cleaner communications.

  1. Don't be cute in the subject line. Attract the attention of the recipient using powerful, descriptive language in subject lines. Include a call for action when needed, including statements like: URGENT, FOR YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION or ESCALATION REQUIRED.
  2. Limit the distribution list. Include only the interested parties in the messages. Beware the "Reply All" button.
  3. Start fresh. Remove unnecessary email trails -- for example, when the messages start to deviate from the original topic. Better yet, when possible, create a new message to continue the discussion.
  4. Manage response expectations. Let your team members know the reason for a delay, in the event you are not able to take immediate action on a request or conversation.
  5. Filter and follow the thread. If the number of messages on a topic starts to get out of hand, sort them by subject or conversation. Return to the first of the sequence to find clarity on the issue at hand. Then, scan the rest of the message's trail to determine what requires attention and action.
  6. Do not engage in email battles. Avoid confrontation online. It is just not productive and creates clutter in your inbox. If you spend more than 10 minutes crafting an email, you are better off scheduling a meeting or call with your counterpart to address the problem in an actual conversation.
  7. Turn on auto-reply. As a courtesy to your teammates, enable the "out-of-the-office" feature. Specify your length of absence from the office and who will be covering while you are out. 
  8. Make thorough meeting invitations via email. List the agenda and attach any documents that will be reviewed during a conference call. Do not send documents minutes before the call, expecting that attendees will be online.
  9. Always include the meeting location. In the location box of your calendar invite, include the meeting room data and any pertinent communication information, such as the conference bridge number and PIN. 
  10. Check the availability of meeting participants. As many email clients allow you to check a participant's availability, do not send calendar invitations knowing that one or more participants are unavailable. This will reduce email traffic. 
From experience, the adoption of these rules takes a few weeks. But once you get buy-in from all team members, email communications become a smoother process, freeing up time to focus on much more important project tasks.

What are your basic email communication rules? How do you get your project team to speak the same language via email?


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1 Comment

Mostly agree with your points but take exception to #1. Statements like, "URGENT, FOR YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION or ESCALATION REQUIRED", are classic SPAM email subjects and even if such a message appeared in my INBOX from someone I knew, I'd be very suspicious of it. And if I was on a new team and really didn't know everyone at-a-glance? I may just kill the message on the spot.

Also, some of your points assume certain email software capabilities, and not everyone has them; calendar integration and such - not a universal thing.

Last but not least - EMAIL is a terrible communications tool. In today's world, many more robust on-line options exist to support on-line exchanges of dialog. Perhaps one of the commandments should be, "Known when to stop the email thread and take the discussion somewhere else". :-)

- JL

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