Leading a Team Using Email

Hey Dr. E –

Like a lot of people right now, my entire team is working remotely.

There are some definite perks to this, but one of the downsides is an abundance of email. We had some employees who were “Reply All”-happy before, but now it’s out of control. I think my team is Replying All to e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g right now because they want to make sure I know, and everyone else knows, they are actually working.

Any suggestions? I’m flying without experience here and any help would be appreciated.

Buried-By-Email

Howdy, friend –

 You are NOT alone in this challenge! So many business owners and managers are finding themselves leading their teams remotely right now, and it’s not easy. For me, email exacerbates a lot of problems, particularly when the messages seem 1) redundant and 2) incessant. This usually makes me run screaming from my office…which is a challenge right now because there aren’t a lot of places to hide.

Seriously, though, I get overwhelmed by quantity and then I freeze. Like, can’t make a step forward, can’t figure out what to do next. Paralyzed.

There’s a pretty good chance that if YOU are feeling this way, your team members are ALSO feeling inundated by the “reply alls”.

Couple this with now balancing kids, roommates, or other family members needing attention on and off throughout the day, and the general stress of the unknown right now, it’s a wonder that we are getting anything done at all.

Help your team through this time with some of these suggestions. ALL of these might not work for your team, but hopefully they will help you streamline your communication so everyone can find some calm.

1.    REMEMBER THAT EVERYONE IS HALF LISTENING TO YOU AT ALL TIMES.

This is without malicious intent and (likely) without even realizing it. Everyone is thinking about a LOT of different things constantly right now.

This perhaps goes without saying, but people are worried about loved ones, worried about finances, worried about how long we will all be staying home.

If your employees are working with kids at home, they are trying to get their work for you done, but they are also trying to make sure their kids get the attention they need.

If they’ve got infants and toddlers, they are working when they can – between when they can work out a shift with a partner or trusted sitter/neighbor.

If you haven’t tried to work with school-aged kids on ‘home work’, it’s a challenge. It’s either like herding cats – no one wants to be working at the same time and run the other direction as soon as you turn your back. OR, the reverse, everyone is engaged, but takes turns asking questions like you are the ‘net’ at a tennis match.

They are probably also feeling a whole lot of guilt about having to use approximately 17-hours of screen time a day to keep their kids occupied while they are working.

Bottom line: it’s overwhelming.

2.    HELP YOUR EMPLOYEES HELP YOU.

Work to streamline tasks and processes.

Can you make a list of what needs to be done this week? Each day? With clear deadlines?

If this isn’t your usual style, be transparent with your team why you are making changes:

“I know everyone is doing the best they can right now with current circumstances. To alleviate some of the stress, I’ve made this calendar/timeline to help everyone know what needs to be done and by when.

Once we are able to work back in the office, we won’t need to use this system. In the meantime, if you have better ideas for how to make this work, please let me know. I am open to your feedback.”

3.    LET PEOPLE KNOW YOU ARE GRATEFUL, DOING YOUR BEST, AND DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS

It’s really important here that your actions match your words as a leader. If not, false praise and gratitude will not just be a neutral effect, but it will actually hurt your credibility as a leader.

In your own way, let your people know you care about them and appreciate this difficult time.

If you are still working daily with your team, be sure to add a few sentences every day to affirm your commitment to them and your gratitude. They may not be hearing it anywhere else in their lives.

If you’ve had to lay your team off, let people know – as you are able – that you are thinking about them. If you are working on applying for federal funds to help your business, let your people know that.

You don’t have to have all of the answers.

That’s probably worth repeating: You don’t have to have all of the answers.

No one expects that at this point. Your people DO want to know that you are actively trying to find solutions, even though most days right now, those solutions seem to be moving targets.

For example:

“I’m in the process of working with our bank to apply for federal relief funds. It’s a slow-moving process and the bank is still trying to figure the process out.

Know I am doing my best and I will keep you posted as I know more information.

In the meantime, please ………….

These are challenging times, but we will get through this together.”

4.    ADD CODES TO SUBJECT LINES

If you and your team aren’t used to working across time zones, it can be a challenge to adapt to this new work environment. As stated above, for a variety of reasons, not all of your employees may be working at the same time(s).

One way to help your team sift through their email, if they are short on time, is ADDING short codes to subject lines.

For example, use the code “FYI” if the message contains only information that you don’t expect a response to.

Use “RR” – response requested – for messages that need a response.

Depending on the industry or situation, you could also use RR.COB [response requested by close of business day] or RR.48 [response requested in the next 48 hours].

  • RR.Friday: Annual Meeting Agenda Items

  • RR.24: Input on Window Proposal

  • FYI: Weekly Update for April 10

If you want to use this kind of coding, be sure to include all of your colleagues in on the decision. This might be a good web-conference conversation, rather than an email discussion. (Sorry – I couldn’t resist! :P)

5.    SHARE THIS REPLY-ALL INFO

It’s possible that if your team is hitting “Reply All” to everything right now, they might be feeling uncertain.

Especially if working remotely is new for your team, they might be unsure how they should be letting you know they are 1) working, 2) being productive and 3) adding value to the team.

Consider having one-on-one conversations. Let me people know that you know they are working, but also your expectations. (Do you want them to check in every day? If so, by phone, web conference, email? How are you following up on their progress?)

RESPONSE IN “REPLY ALL”: “Great!”

Are you replying so everyone knows you are working and read the message? If so, consider speaking with your manager about their expectations on this topic. Chances are, they know you are working and are doing good work. (And don’t need to “reply all” at every opportunity.)

Do you think the person/team is doing exceptional work? If so, consider replying only to the sender, and perhaps their manager. Include a sentence or two about whyyou think the work is exceptional.

Someone else said “awesome” and you don’t want the sender to think, for some reason, that you don’t also think they’re fabulous? It’s ok. See above. Let the sender know a different way (phone call, in-person conversation, etc.) that you think they are a rock star.

RESPONSE IN “REPLY ALL”: Offering additional, pertinent information.

Will you be seeing all of the recipients in-person soon?If so, wait until the meeting – provided that your additional, pertinent information is not time sensitive.

If your additional information is time sensitive, click “Reply All” and fire away.

RESPONSE IN “REPLY ALL”: Correcting information that is pertinent and time sensitive.

Will you be seeing all of the recipients in-person soon? Are you feeling the need to “Reply All” for your ego – or because there will be problems if people move forward without your additional information?

Also, consider the sender’s feelings and professional image. Are you clicking “Reply All” to correct a grammatical error? [If so, is that really necessary?]

Did the sender make an egregious error? And if you “Reply All” will they be embarrassed or shamed? If so, considering immediately calling or walking to their office. Discuss the error person-to-person, and allow the sender to send an email correcting the error.

Is the sender your employee? And seeming to intentionally go against your directions? If so, as neutrally as possible, give the correct information in a “Reply All” response. Afterward, immediately discuss the situation with your employee, both why you made the correction and how you will both work together to avoid this from happening in the future. (SEE ALSO forthcoming handout from Bright Business Consulting on how to address conflict.)

RESPONSE IN “REPLY ALL”: “Everyone on this email is AWESOME!”

Are you sending this because you want everyone on the email to know you indeed think they are doing awesome work? If so, consider expanding this praise in two ways:

  1.  Adding two or three sentences to this with specific details or praise. (E.g., “I appreciated how Person X did [this amazing thing] and Person Y stepped up noticeably since last week. Person Z….”)

  2. Make a note for yourself or print out the email and save it in a file. At your next team meeting or all-staff meeting, express your delight in person.

  3. From time to time, take 5 minutes and write someone a hand-written note. Or, have printed cards available in your office to acknowledge above-and-beyond acts with a “you’ve been caught” award. The extra time and attention makes a difference!

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BOTTOM LINE: Times are weird.

Do your best.

Let people know your game plan, even if it changes regularly.

Admit when you make mistakes – and cut others more slack than usual.

Leading through email is possible. Communicate your expectations clearly with your team and ask for feedback. They will be ready to engage!

Have a question that you want some perspective on? Email your situation to
emily@brightbusinessconsulting.com. To make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe here.