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Chapter 6 - Ban email internally

Don't use email to communicate within your team at all! Only with the outside world!

People in your team shouldn’t email each other

Whenever I talk to people at any conference, they keep asking me about my own set of “productivity hacks”, and one of the first question I get is: “How do you handle email? What are your tricks to making email work?” and very often they expect me to have some kind of a magic silver bullet up my sleeve.

Unfortunately what they get is a very surprising answer:

I’m really bad at email. I hardly use it. In fact, we don’t use email at all in my company.

Yes, everyone in my company has an “@nozbe.com” email address but nobody uses it to email each other.

Internally email is banned in our team.

When people hear that, they give me a “Can you do that?” face.

Of course you can and you actually should if you want to have a productive environment for your team. Only allow email to the “outside world” and ban email within your team. Let me explain how it’s done.

Email is not for collaboration, it’s for correspondence!

Email is bad for you and your team because people receive too many messages every day and the important internal emails get mixed up with other correspondence with people from the outside world.

To solve this problem you need to design a special, internal communication channel. We use two apps for that: Slack and Nozbe Teams (duh!). I’ll explain our setup in just a bit, but first let’s dive a little deeper as to why email is the worst tool for coordinating team activities.

First off, even if you’re really good at creating special filters for your email messages, still some of them may be categorized as “spam” or will get mixed up in the wrong email threads.

Second, however, is the worst trap busy professionals make with email. By trying to be “good at email”, they make it even worse for their recipients, because they want to be efficient.

Question - if you want to write someone about two different things, do you send them one email or two? Of course you just send one email. You’re efficient. You don’t want to be weird and send people two different emails, right? Well, that’s the inherent problem with email.

Here’s a great story that illustrates it and recently happened to a friend of mine when he was on vacation.

He received an angry phone call from a colleague, blaming him for overlooking some important information in a case they were working on. He was surprised he missed this as he has always been the person to leave stuff thoroughly finished before vacation. His team coordinates most of the things via email and only some stuff with an internal tool. He had no access to the tool from his phone, but he checked his emails… and then he saw what he missed. He was working with someone on two completely different cases and that other party sent him a message about one of the cases, but then “by the way” mentioned an important info about the second case as well in that same email. This other info is what my friend completely missed.

Third problem is the signal to noise ratio. To cover their bases, people in teams CC or BCC everyone or almost everyone. Just to make sure nobody’s left out. This increases the number of emails exponentially and makes it more likely that people will just stop paying enough attention and things will really fall through the cracks!

The solution is simple:

Ban email and communicate internally using dedicated tools that enable commenting

Internal communication should be done through projects and tasks

It’s 2020. There are many online team collaboration tools that are much better than email. They let you manage projects, tasks and feedback completely online. Most of these online tools have apps for most of the platforms so the team information can be accessed from anywhere. And everyone can contribute and clearly see which project, which task or which issue is being worked on by whom.

The advantage of this approach is that by default, each comment thread is attached to only one task or project. This way there is no confusion that by replying to a comment, you’re giving feedback to two or three tasks at a time.

One task, one discussion. Simple and focused.

At Nozbe we call it task-based communication1 and we’re using our own tool Nozbe Teams for this. Again, there are many other tools on the market so every team should choose the one that suits them best2. Just avoid email.

Additional benefit is that by sharing projects and tasks we have more transparency. People see what’s happening in each project, who’s responsible for what. All is clear. We totally avoid all these issues of somebody not putting someone on copy. People can choose which projects or tasks they want to follow and which they can choose to ignore or review less frequently. They are in control.

You can add real-time chat as an internal water cooler for “blah blah blah”

What I like about task-based communication I just mentioned is the fact that it’s asynchronous3, meaning you let the other party take time to respond to you. You just create a task, you add a thoughtful comment, you delegate it to someone, and you get on with your work, while you let the other party choose when they respond to your comment or do the task you assigned to them.

This is healthy and this is how team collaboration should be done. Very rarely things are so urgent that people need an ASAP response. Things can wait and you should normally prefer to let people take their time to do what’s asked of them or give you a really thorough feedback.

However, sometimes you are in a hurry and you need some information quickly. We use our internal chat for this though an app called Slack4.

However, don’t you try to switch from email to chat and only chat.

It’s a trap. Many teams have tried and failed to use a chat app for collaboration instead of email, and while it’s a good first step, things get to stressful too quickly. In a chat app, messages are being sent fast, information disappears and it’s hard to keep up about who’s responsible for what.

That’s why we use chat only for these reasons:

  • When the situation is a little urgent and we need to get in touch with someone quickly, especially when we’re getting the current project to the finish line
  • When we want to just share something with our entire team, a status update (“getting coffee” or “out for a run”) on our main company channel, or something funny on our “random” channel.

Whenever someone shares something actionable in chat, we ask them to create a task from it. This way we get a clear distinction between chat and work.

Convert actionable emails from the outside world to tasks

Once you’ve stopped using email for collaboration internally, you should start extending this to people you work with from the outside.

If you work with someone sporadically, then just learn to forward their emails to your project management tool and it’ll automatically convert these emails to tasks. This way they’re in your system and you can work on them with your team. Most modern tools let you do that.

When you work with some freelancers or contractors more regularly, consider adding them to your internal project management tool as team members or just share projects with them. This way you’ll be working more efficiently with them, as well.

Communicate internally on written texts

Just as I mentioned in the previous chapter on writing stuff down, instead of sending documents to each other via email, use modern writing tools that let you comment on text and each individual paragraph.

This is also internal communication and it’s much more efficient than sending attachments to each other. Not to mention the countless times folks forget to attach the document they’ve just described in their email.

I’ve said it before and I repeat - it’s 2020. It’s time to use modern tools to communicate effectively within a team.

One thing: move your team communication away from email to modern apps

Don’t be afraid to do it: BAN EMAILS. Use email only to connect with people outside of your team and use specific tools to communicate through projects, tasks, documents or chats with your team.

This way you and your team are always on the same page and you can decide when you want to focus on working with your people and when you want to check out what’s happening in the outside world.

These two communication channels won’t get mixed up anymore.

This is the reason I’m not sweating about my email correspondence all that much. The only exception is our great email support for both Nozbe apps, but I’m not answering these emails personally and we’re using a dedicated customer support app for this as well.

To me, efficient communication with my team is the most important thing in the world so I’m glad I have it separated from anything else.

Recommended reading for this chapter is “Under New Management” by David Burkus.5

  1. What is task-based communication? 

  2. We use and keep building Nozbe Teams. Popular alternatives in this space include Basecamp, Asana or Trello. All of these tools approach project and task management a little differently so make sure your team chooses a tool that fits the way they like to work. 

  3. Asynchronous communication as a top productivity booster 

  4. We use Slack for chatting. Alternatives include Microsoft Teams or Twist

  5. Some Companies Are Banning Email and Getting More Done was an article by David Burkus which just confirmed that I was onto something. Later he expanded this in his book: Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual 

Next: Chapter 7 - Make meetings optional

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