Guidance on effective use of email
These guidelines will help you make efficient and effective use of email. Follow the advice and you will be able to develop good practice for handling email and avoid many potential pitfalls.
Email is an essential means of communication. However, if you don't manage your email use, it can be a drain on your productivity and become stressful. If an incoming email message distracts you from productive work, it takes an average of four minutes to get back on track. So, in one day, if 15 emails derail you, you've lost an hour of productive time. By establishing efficient practices for dealing with email, you can take control of your working day.
- Clear out your inbox - it reduces clutter and stress, as well as reducing the financial and sustainability costs. Instead of storing emails in your inbox, move them into folders. A cluttered inbox risks items being overlooked, missed, or forgotten. By keeping a clear inbox and organising your emails into folders, you are organised, can take charge of your day and your work priorities.
- Avoid any folder becoming too large. Large folders are difficult to manage and are slow to open. Carry out regular housekeeping to remove messages which you no longer require.
- Manage how often you check your email. Make sure you check your email as frequently as is required to carry out your role. Try to set specific time aside to deal with email so that you can have blocks of time when you can work on other strategic work without interrupting your productive flow. For example, you might choose to check your email 5 or 6 times a day. You might want to consider switching off any desktop pop-ups or sound alerts when new messages arrive, so that you can gain more control over your working day (see the ‘Disposal’ section for further recommendations).
- Managers should be careful not to encourage unhealthy expectations - staff should not feel that they must respond to emails immediately, out of hours, when on vacation, etc., unless it is part of their role.
- Wherever possible talk instead of type! It is easy to overuse email to communicate. Don't use email to people in the same office unless absolutely necessary and even in the same building if possible. It is often quicker and more valuable to walk and talk to the individuals concerned or to pick up the phone.
- Never use email for urgent matters. Regularly flagging messages as urgent creates an environment in which people feel they must view each email as it arrives. This creates an unpredictable and inefficient working day. Use the "three hour" rule - for anything that requires a response within three hours use more alternative communication methods such as telephone or in person.
- Use informative subject lines. When starting a new message, make effective and appropriate use of the subject. It is important that recipients of your messages have a good indication as to which messages to read first and which ones can be read at a later date. It is also easier to find relevant messages at a later date.
- Stick to one topic per email. Several short messages are usually preferable to one long message covering many separate subjects.
- Be clear about any points of action. When you send a message to someone that requires an action, make it very clear within the first few lines of the e-mail what is expected. If possible, you should also include a due date.
- Avoid overuse of capital letters. Capital letters can be used sparingly to emphasise a word or phrase. If they are used excessively then this is the email equivalent of shouting.
- Ensure you are emailing the correct address! The University email system has the addresses of a huge number of people. Some of them have very similar email addresses. You should avoid guessing email addresses and use the University Email & Telephone Directory. This is available to both mail clients and via the World Wide Web.
- Use mailing lists. Many hundreds of local email lists exist for different groups within the University. If possible, use one of these lists rather than trying to maintain your own list and having a large number of individual addresses as recipients. If you do email large numbers of recipients individually, consider using the Bcc (blind carbon copy) field to enter their addresses as this will prevent recipients from identifying one another - this is very important if the message you are sending is sensitive or confidential.
- Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. This is important because poor spelling, grammar and punctuation may give a bad impression of the University and will not help you to clearly convey your message. Messages with no full stops or commas are difficult to read and in extremes can sometimes distort the meaning of your text. The supported email programs have facilities for checking your spelling which you should make use of.
- Use a short informative email signature. Your email signature should include your name, contact details such as brief postal address, telephone and email details. It should also include the URL of the University website.
- Think before you hit "reply-all". Ask yourself whether all of the people on the recipient list really need to see your reply. Many times people are added to an e-mail thread and get included in all of the subsequent discussions which occur. This can be a major inconvenience for some of the recipients.
- Pause before you hit the Send button. If you are angry or upset about the message you are replying to, give yourself some time to calm down before replying. Reading through your reply several times will also help. Sending a quick and angry response rarely helps and often leads to an increasingly acrimonious exchange of messages.
- Paste responses to common queries. If you are frequently asked the same questions then save the text of your responses so you can paste it into subsequent replies. Alternatively, consider proving the information on a web page and then send your recipient the URL (web address).
- Take care when replying to email lists. When you receive a message from an email list, be very careful to direct your reply to the appropriate address. A common problem arises when a person should reply to an individual, but instead sends that reply to the entire list.
- Add a summary to put the forwarded message in context. When forwarding messages consider including a summary at the beginning. This will allow the new recipient to determine what has already been discussed. It will also allow you to include the actions or information specific to that person so that he/she can quickly provide the response you require.
- Legal obligations. Never send or forward messages containing libellous, defamatory, offensive, discriminatory or obscene remarks.
- Never forward virus hoaxes and chain letters. If you receive a message warning you of a virus that will damage your PC, it is almost certainly a hoax. Sometimes virus hoaxes actually contain viruses themselves! By forwarding hoaxes you will waste valuable resources and will not be helping any of the recipients. See information about hoax emails.
Email chain letters usually promise untold riches or ask for your support for a charitable cause. Even if the message seems to be legitimate, the name of the senders is often forged. If such a message seems to be too good to be true, it probably is! It is therefore sensible to just delete such messages
- Be very careful when opening attachments, even if the message appears to be from someone you know. E-mail attachments infected with viruses are one of the most widely used methods for infecting PCs.
- Be selective in the sending of attachments.Wherever possible either include the text in the body of the email or even better, save the file onto a shared drive or web space and then send your recipient the web address.
- For documents being shared within a department or within the University, you can store them on your departmental drive or your M drive and give other people permission to access these files.
- Staff can also consider using SharePoint, the University's collaborative working environment to share documents. SharePoint Online is a user friendly, secure system that is fully integrated with Microsoft Office and makes collaborative working with internal and external colleagues simpler and more efficient.
- Consider the file format of the attachment. When sending an attachment you should ensure, in advance, that the recipient can handle your attachment - remember, not all computer users use the same software. For example, a user external to the University might not have the latest version of Word installed whilst other organisations may have a policy which discourages the sending or receiving of certain file types.
- Be careful about the size of an attachment. If you really do need to add attachments, think carefully about the file size. Files in text (txt), revisable text format (rtf) and portable document format (pdf) are usually more compact formats than files in Word (doc) format. Office 2007 file formats, for example, docx, are more compact than the doc format, however, you will need to take care that the person you are sending the file to can open files that are in Office 2007 format. Images in documents can result in very large file sizes.
- Use a virus scanner. If you need to send an attachment from a PC which is not running the Managed Windows Service then use a virus scanner to ensure that the file does not contain a virus.
Transfer and Delete
- Before saving emails you must identify if the email is a record. Use the table below to help:
Emails which are considered records Emails which can be deleted as soon as the relevant event has occurred or project has been completed
- If it is part of a case file
- If it could potentially be used as evidence in court
- If it shows part of a financial transaction
- If it is evidence of a decision or action
- If it could have any historic value
- If it shows information to carry out business, such as day to day administrative records or material potentially relevant to present or future research
- If we will need the information to help us deal with similar situations in the future
- Emails giving details of holidays
- Invitations to work events
- Messages sent as thanks of information
- Copies of reports and newsletters
- Internal messages into which you were "cc'd" or "bcc'd"
- Personal emails
- Emails leading up to a decision where relating information is stored elsewhere
- Emails that are duplicating information found in other email inboxes or records that are stored safely
- If your email is a record which should be kept it must be transferred to the appropriate place. For example into a case file or a secure departmental record keeping system, either in paper or electronic format. In some cases you may need to print out the email as it makes it easy for all the corresponding records to be held in the same place. However please take into account to costs associated with printing, including time. As well as this, if the record is required in court, a paper print out may carry less weight than an electronic version.
- If your email has no corporate value and therefore is not a record it should be deleted and any paper copies should be confidentially destroyed. This includes personal emails, which should be deleted, however, if you do need to keep any personal emails, keep them in a folder titled ‘personal’ in your inbox.
- Disposal (deleting emails)
- Set some dedicated time to delete emails which are no longer needed e.g. set a reminder to spend 20 minutes on a Friday afternoon to go through emails
- Make sure deleted emails have been deleted - click on deleted emails folder, right click and select 'empty folder'
- There is capability within Outlook to search for emails concerning specific subjects/address and then 'bulk delete' can be applied
- To save an email from Microsoft Outlook to a shared drive, open or highlight the email, select File, then Save As. If the email is sufficiently valuable it should be saved in this way which creates a .msg file. However, if you think there is a reasonable possibility the authenticity of the email will be questioned, as well as saving the email to a shared drive save the original in your email account.
- When you have decided the email should be kept it is important to save it in an area where your colleagues will be able to access it and identify it easily in case they need it while you are away. If you keep emails in your personal inbox or sent folders they will not be accessible to others by default and you may find it difficult to retrieve the information yourself if your inbox becomes too full.
- Once the record has been transferred it is important to ensure that if stored electronically, no element of the email can be changed or altered in any way. This can be done by changing the properties of the file to ‘read only’. If you do have a departmental record keeping system, it is advised that access to this is restricted.
- An alternative way to ensure staff will be able to access important emails should you be off is to share your outlook folders. You can do this by left clicking on the folder you’d like to share, choosing properties, the permission tab, then add, and selecting from the list the members of staff you’d like to allow permission, you can also edit the permission level, for example allowing someone to only see emails you are the author of.
- It can be appropriate to store some information in shared email inboxes. Where this is the case, you should consider a folder structure which will enable easier management of your records according to the University's Retention Schedule. Moving emails that are no longer needed daily into a 'semi-current' folder may be useful as the specific folder can be addressed when there is time, this folder could be organised by year and deleted as appropriate.
- It is not possible to set a standard retention period for all emails as email is used to communicate a variety of things. Just like there cannot be a standard retention period for all letters, the retention is based on the content, not on the format of the record.
- The University Information & Records Manager is responsible for the University retention schedule. The Information & Records Management team can provide guidance on how long to keep records once they have been saved. Contact Information & Records Management for help and guidance.
It is important that staff do not retain email messages containing any personal information for longer than that information is requried. The length of time an email with personal data should be retained is dependent upon the purposes for which the information was obtained. Once this purpose is complete, the email should be deleted.