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Email etiquette and communication in a pandemic

Email etiquette has become a vexed issue during the pandemic. There are good reasons for this and fortunately some useful techniques exist to help ease the burden.

When writing your next email, here is what you can do:

  1. Check in, don’t check up

We’ve taken a look at Patrick Lencioni’s revisited ‘five dysfunctions of teams’ model for COVID-19. There’s a clear message to prioritise the personal over the professional.

After all, the first behaviour of any successful team is trust.

In a virtual environment, it is important that we spend time checking in with (not checking up on) our peers (and line reports) and are able to show our own vulnerability – modelling behaviour which allows our fellow team members to be more open.

Therefore, don’t consider email as your first option when it comes to keeping in touch. Pick up the phone or try a video call to check in instead. Be prepared for people to tell you how they really are. This pandemic has demonstrated how we are disclosing far more about our lives than ever before as we try to juggle often very complex personal circumstances. An email referencing the phone conversation might be useful afterwards.

Among your team, pay attention to how people are communicating by email. Look out for word choice, tone and the time an email is sent. This can give you an indication of how people may be feeling but not necessarily saying.

  1. Learn to W.A.I.T.

A hugely undervalued skill in the workplace is the ability to listen, and it’s more important than ever. There’s a lot going on in our lives – be it professional or personal, furloughed or unfurloughed.

So, it’s important to take the time to stop and consider the point of every communication and to whom you should be addressing when you’re composing an email.

Someone coming back from annual leave or  furlough, for example, might not appreciate having to wade through dozens of cc’d emails. Always consider whether a phone call, virtual meeting or face-to-face briefing could be a better alternative.

One way to do this is to use the acronym W.A.I.T. which stands for Why Am I Talking? Setting yourself this challenge helps create a more considered approach to team communications and avoid passive aggressive overtones.

  1. Start with the end in mind

Good communication is more than just relaying information. The most effective communications start with envisaging the impact every piece of communication needs to have, and what actions it needs to generate.

There’s another important ingredient too, which is best summed up by the beautiful words of poet and author Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  1. Assume positive intent

When feeling the force of uncertainty and the inevitable accompanying stress, it’s quite common for people to act defensively – especially if they feel they are at the sharp end of a critical or difficult piece of communication.

When people feel defensive, they raise their barriers and stop listening. Yet they might be shutting out the very gem of insight they need to get them over a particular challenge.

This behaviour can be changed by re-thinking the intention behind the piece of communication. Instead of taking the criticism negatively, imagine instead that it was written with a good intention – this will immediately defuse a defensive reaction. Former Pepsico chief Indra Nooyi is one of the most notable proponents of positive intent.

So next time you receive a blunt email from a colleague, criticising your approach to a problem, assume positive intent first before responding. And consider whether picking up the phone might be a better alternative.

  1. Be brief and genuine

Let’s face it, working life is busier than ever. Organisations  have been through a significant change exercise and are continuing to adapt to new ways of working, many sectors and businesses are under extreme pressure and  uncertainty as they attempt recovery and reinvention. We want our emails to be brief and personable. We want to feel we’re all pulling together.

  1. Mind your language

Pay attention to your words. Watch out for your usage of “Just” or “I think” or “It seems”. Removing these words will help make your emails chime with clarity.

Communication is the big cog in the wheel

A recent study by MIT asking what employees who are transitioning to remote working, as a result of COVID-19 want from their employers found good, frequent communication topped the list, above emotional support and technology provision.

We have developed a number of workshops to help support employees with remote working. Please get in touch if you would like to talk through a particular issue or challenge you are facing.


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