I have a dream that company emails would be a thing of the past

I'm sick of emails, but more importantly, I'm sick of always using its common pattern which goes something like:

Hi [name],

Hope you're doing well.

I was wondering if you could [insert actual request here]?

Let me please know if I can be of any help or if you have any questions or concerns going forward?

Best,

- Aurelien

90% of the text here is about being polite/friendly.

It might not seem like it, but a message similar to the one above also conveys a pretty important cognitive meaning.

  • Adding the first name is a call to action to indicate you expect something from that person. It gives a sense of responsibility, especially when others are cc'ed.
  • Asking if everything's okay is pure empathy (when not faked). People spend most of their lives at work and shit happens. It's good to know when it's not the best time to reach out.
  • Providing a path forward and offering your assistance in case there's a blocker should help with driving the request to completion.

So, with this, there's nothing we should drop, right? Else we'd be losing important cognitive information. True, unless expectations are set. Hold on a moment. More on that below.

Going with one-liners would certainly improve the time spent crafting/reading the email.

Hi [name], I was wondering if you could please [insert actual request here]? Thanks!

When you think about it, it's likely the way you'd reach out via chat or even when responding from your mobile phone. So why not via regular emails? Most likely because in electronic mails we're trying to mimic the formal way of communicating we've learnt about before the Internet era. Else, why would we still be doing it? More importantly, is the next generation going to disrupt emails altogether?

Something I've noticed is there are two persona that are most likely to use one-liners already: managers and developers. The former is likely trying to prevent spending too much time in emails and needs to always balance decision-making with actions that need to be taken. The latter is often not seeing the point at being extra verbose. It's like code optimization, after all.

You can still be friendly with a one-liner

It's always a bit annoying when you receive an email that makes you feel like you did something wrong or the sender has bad intentions. Imagine an email that goes like:

Send me a meeting invite. I need to cleanup your language about this issue.

No, nobody needs to cleanup my language. We're both adults and might have a different opinion on the matter. Also, is saying please that complicated?

It'd be a hundred times better received if it was rephrased as:

Hey [name]. Thanks for voicing your concerns! Please send me a meeting invite for us to discuss things in person.

Whether you're unhappy with someone doesn't mean you shouldn't be respectful and friendly.

How can we make sure expectations are set?

Nobody taught you how to actually write emails. Therefore, you might have people writing essays and those answering with a one-liner in the same company. Those people won't understand each other: one will be perceived as muddying the water and the other will be perceived as rude.

Ideally, it should be a company-wide policy to encourage short, straight to the point emails. A few guidelines could even be strongly suggested. For example:

  • Always say 'Hi', 'Hey' or 'Hello'.
  • Always add the first name or - when reaching out to a team - add 'all' or 'Team'.
  • When you ask anything, always add 'please'.
  • Always say 'thanks'.
  • Always quote the relevant bits of the email you're responding to.
  • When you forward an email chain, make sure to always provide a call to action so that recipients don't have to read through the whole thread.
  • Always write an email by assuming it'll be read by everybody in the company. This will help you with staying polite, respectful, open-minded, and will prevent you from being tempted to throw anybody under the bus.

And as a highlight:

  • When answering an email, imagine you're writing from your mobile phone and don't hesitate to shorten your one-liner even more. E.g. 'Will do', 'Sure thing'...
  • Continue writing regular emails for every interaction you have with the outside world! The world's not ready for that just yet.

Going forward: zero email

Fact: Terabytes of email archives from years prior to you joining a company are worthless and most likely lost forever. French consulting company Atos started banning email as early as in 2011. The truth is, more and more companies are following that path.

Recently I truly enjoyed reading Why we’re betting against real-time team messaging. What I like is it goes beyond the hype of real-time messaging and dusty email habits, to step back, reflect and find ways to collaborate in a sustainable fashion, for all, forever. In most scenarios, email shouldn't be part of this equation.

Aurelien Navarre

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Lyon, France