4 Rules for Fantastic Internal Email

Internal email (or inter-company email as some people like to call it) is one of those topics that unfortunately seems to get omitted when discussing the keys to creating a successful business. My experience has always been that if it’s done well it can improve productivity and moral drastically. Conversely, if it’s done poorly it can do the exact opposite.

I think that this is one area that our current team excels in. For us this is especially important because we’re scattered in various locations. It’s very rare that my partners and I are all at the warehouse on the same day, so at least one or two of us is working remotely in addition to our three contractors who all live in other regions of the country.

It’s a particularly fascinating topic because I think doing it successfully is part cultural, part training, and part each individual’s personality. My partners and I can affect the first two, but you can’t make other people be be unselfish and value other people’s time as much as their own. That’s something that we have to do our best to vet in the hiring process. It’s one of the many reasons why we communicated with our applicants so much via email prior to even interviewing them. You can learn a surprising amount about someone by observing their email behaviors.

Having worked in organizations of various sizes as well as being a part of a growing company that’s constantly changing in size, there are a few rules that I’ve adopted as the keys for doing internal email successfully:

  1. Know who to CC and who not to CC. We’ve all seen organizations where everyone CC’s everyone to cover their own ass. My rule: if someone isn’t directly involved in a project, don’t CC them.
  2. Know when email is the right medium and when phone/IM is better. I wrote about this in detail last year. In most cases email is sufficient. We generally respond to each others’ emails in less than 24 hours. Only interrupt with IM or a phone call if you need an answer sooner.
  3. Know when to respond and when not to. This is a tough one. I like to put myself in other people’s shoes. If I would want a response from them – even if it’s just “great idea!” or “keep me posted, I’m interested” – then I write a response. If it’s more of a FYI type of email then a response probably isn’t necessary. If you’re not sure, I think you’re always better spending a minute and writing a quick response to show the other person that you’re paying attention.
  4. Keep personal stuff out of it. We don’t send any chain emails or pictures of cats dancing on telephone poles. Keep work email for work, and personal email for personal stuff.

What about you: what are your best and worst experiences with internal email? How would you make it better?

6 comments on 4 Rules for Fantastic Internal Email

  1. Tim says:

    One of the tricks I typically use to keep emails short and sweet, I rarely use whole paragraphs. I try to be as brief as possible, 1-2 sentence micro-paragraphs on a subject. Unless the subject matter is complex or I’m still sorting it out in my head prior to sending and think the recipient would benefit from seeing my thought process.

    It sounds petty, but if someone is an email’oholic I won’t be as punctual about replying. My theory is I want them to think before they click send to get the most out of it, rather than firing out 15 mini-messages in 10 minutes.

    I still haven’t quite gravitated to checking email 2-3 times/day. Then again a heavy day of email for me is 20/day and at least half require no reply at all. I think that too would slow down heavy emailers, replying slower.

    I’ve adhered to a strict 24 hour policy for years, all emails are replied to thoroughly within 24 hours of receipt. Even when I was receiving 200+/day I would make sure my inbox was zero’d out every day.

    Delete useless old emails, old sales/specials from retailers, anything more than a few years old that you’ll never need again. The hedge trimmer you bought from a guy on Craigslist a few years ago, delete it! It makes searching for valuable emails much quicker and more efficient. So many people save everything. I’ve been using the delete the useless stuff since 2009 and it’s never been a problem. It took a long time to clear out the riff raff, but now my inbox is tidy, clean and not wasting space and time in my life.

    Communicate in English, not texting ebonics.

    If the email volume is high and short replies are acceptable I employ a “sent from my iPhone” email signature so I can get by with even shorter replies and no one is the wiser.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Great tips Tim, especially “training” the email’oholic’s, I’ve definitely done that before. Thankfully we don’t have any of those at our company or it would totally ruin things.

  2. Matt Baty says:

    If you must reply just to acknowledge receipt of a message, put the “Thanks” or “OK, got it.” in the subject line. It’s helpful to the recipient that gets tons of emails a day as they can just comb through.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Ah that’s a good one Matt. I never thought of that. Gmail on the web shows the first line of the reply next to the subject but increasingly we’re checking email on our phones which obviously doesn’t have room for that…plus it’s a good habit for emailing people outside the organization who use other software as well.

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