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Chapter 6 - Ban email internally

Don't use email to communicate within your team – only use it with the outside world!

Your team members shouldn’t email each other

Whenever I speak to people at any conference, I am continually asked about my own set of “productivity hacks,” and one of the first questions I get is: “How do you handle email? What are your tricks to making email work?”. Very often they expect me to have a solution up my sleeve.

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 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. Let me explain how it’s done.

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

Email is not a valuable tool for you and your team. People receive too many messages every day, and often the important internal emails get mixed up with other correspondence 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. I’ll explain our setup in just a bit, but first let’s dive a little deeper into 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, some of them still 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 working by email,” they make it even worse for their recipients through their attempt at efficiency.

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 when you can cut down on work, right? Well, that’s the inherent problem with email.

To illustrate my point, here’s a great story that recently happened to a friend of mine while 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 a person to leave his work thoroughly finished before vacation. His team coordinates most work via email and only a few tasks through 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 the other party sent him a message about one of the cases, but then unrelatedly added (as means of “by the way…”) an important piece of info about the second case in that same email. This other info is what my friend completely missed. Efficiency in email can lead to disastrous results.

The third problem with email is the signal-to-noise ratio. To cover their bases, people in teams often CC or BCC 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, so the team information can be accessed from anywhere and everyone can contribute and clearly see who is working on which project or task.

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 on two or three tasks at a time.

One task, one discussion. Simple and focused.

At Nozbe, we call it task-based communication1, and we use 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.

An additional benefit is that by sharing projects and tasks, there is more transparency. People see what’s happening in each project, who’s responsible for what. All is clear. We completely avoid the problem of somebody not copying someone else on a message. 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 is the fact that it’s asynchronous3, meaning you let the other party take time to respond. You simply create a task, add a thoughtful comment, delegate it to someone and 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. Of course, if the task is time sensitive, you set a deadline.

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

Sometimes, however, you are in a hurry and you need information quickly. We use our internal chat for such cases: an app called Slack4.

Nonetheless, don’t 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 too stressful too quickly. In a chat app, messages are being sent fast, information disappears and it’s hard to keep up on 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 share something with our entire team, such as 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 the chat, we ask them to create a task from it. This allows us to maintain 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, 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 freelancers or contractors more regularly, consider adding them to your internal project management tool as team members or just share projects with them. This allows you to work 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 a form of internal communication, and it’s much more efficient than sending attachments to each other – not to mention it will eliminate the countless times folks forget to attach the document they’ve just described in their email.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s 2020. It’s time to use modern tools to communicate effectively within a team.

The 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 guarantees that 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 don’t sweat about my email correspondence all that much. The only exception is our great email support for both Nozbe apps, but I don’t answer these emails personally – we use 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 everything else.

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

  1. What is task-based communication? 

  2. We continue to use and improve 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 that just confirmed 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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