Ten top tips to make email work in the modern workplace

The predictions are (and have been for some years now) that email is dying if not already dead. The “new kids” in technology, the Instant Message, text and even the emoji are taking over.

In an era when The Emoji Movie is making headlines it all makes for an exciting story. But let’s stop a moment and check its veracity.

It may be correct for communication outside of work but it is certainly not true for business communication: email is not dead, it just needs to be updated to fit our workplace needs today.

Think about it: how many more emails do you receive now than five or 10 years ago? Now, think about your workplace email platform: how different is it really from what you used at work a decade ago?

Probably the answers are: “a lot more” for the former and “not much” for the latter. This is due to a greater reliance on virtual written communication at work, especially as we have started to work more regionally and globally.

The McKinsey Global Institute found that an average employee spends 13 hours a week reading and responding to email. Furthermore, not only has the technology of email not advanced to keep up with our needs, but many of the expectations around how to write an effective email have stayed either stuck in the past or without clear rules.

Now, this is not to say that instant messaging (IM) and texting are not game changers in how we work, they most certainly are.  But they are impacting that quick phone call or a walk to your colleague’s desk far more than they are impacting the amount of emails written.

This is because IMs and texts are ideal for quick communication- especially communication that involves a relatively simple question that needs a quick answer. They tend not to work as well for explaining a complex issue or for solving a problem.

IMs and texts also rely on each person being in front of their device as the message comes in. This of course has it limits when working globally as our time zones do not always overlap in that moment we need to communicate.

The problem with written virtual communication, however, is that we do lose some of the advantages of a face-to-face or even a phone conversation when writing rather than talking. We do not see the people sending or receiving the message, for instance, nor do we even hear their voice. This leads to a lot of opportunities to misinterpret the tone or intention of a message and even how the receiver interpreted it.

It doesn’t mean the email or IM has to be the weakest link in global communication, but it does mean it needs greater attention.

Written communication has a major advantage over verbal communication: it allows us the “luxury” or perhaps necessity of pausing, taking a step back and planning a bit more what we say and how we say it.  We can even step back and think when we receive a message what the intended meaning and tone was.

Here are 10 key tips to writing and receiving emails in global business:

1 The process of taking a step back is the key to successful written communication, especially with other cultures.

A typical response may be “yes, I know… if only I had the time”. But those 30-60 seconds can save you 30-60 minutes or even a few hours in the long run.

In our haste to get the message out there we often create unintentional confusion in message that just leads to a string of further emails, IMs or texts. We can all agree that back and forth is frustrating and not effective or efficient at all.  And even worse, at times we even damage valuable workplace relationships when the intent and tone of our well-intentioned message is misunderstood.

2 Think on two levels

Just like in verbal virtual communication there are two main aspects to focus on when

using email, IMs or texts: the surface level, which is all about mechanics, and the deeper level which takes the cultural differences into consideration. By being aware of both we can make some conscious shifts in our thinking and writing style.

On the surface level it’s about common sense. These are the things our companies train us on or share their expectations around. It is what comes up when you Google “how to write a good email”.

There are already certain standards and norms (though many are implicit and not formalised). The medium with the most “rules” around it is email. This is perhaps since it has been around the longest and started essentially as an electronic letter. IM and texting are much newer and are more like putting pieces of conversation into writing, and as a result there are fewer rules and norms.

The deeper, cultural level – let’s call it cultural sense – covers the things which are much harder to pin down as they are that hidden deeper layer of communication. This is where something that might be a standard accepted “rule” regarding what makes a good email in one culture might be seen as very different in another.  For example, when writing a German company director it is easy to start with the accepted British norm of a “Hello Juergen”, but Germany is still a more formal and hierarchical culture. So it is better to err on the side of caution and write “Hello Dr. Holstein”. Then you can see how he signs his emails and take a cue from that.

3 Consider which medium is best for the situation

You don’t have to respond to an email with an email – sometimes an IM, text or a phone call could be more suitable. This may depend on how busy you both are, how sensitive or complex the situation is and whether the person is able to respond straight away.

On a deeper cultural level, think about what is the preferred medium for this culture?

For example, in Mexico, IM and texts are very popular but for anything urgent a phone call supported by an email is still often the preferred format. If you are in the same office it might even be better to walk to their desk and discuss the issue and then summarise things in an email – even for tech-savvy Mexican millennials. This is due to the Mexican values of connection, relationships and face-to-face contact.

4 Think about how to make your message clear

Ask yourself first if you are sharing information, asking a question or requiring someone to take a specific action. Do you need something from the recipient?  The goal should be that when skimming through emails, the recipient already knows what the topic is and if they need to take an action. So a clear detailed subject line and clear information in an organised structure is key. Using clear statements such as “Could you help me with the following 2 questions:” or “I see 3 issues with this new project:” are helpful

Even with IMs and texts, think about how you can make things clear.  For example add a sentence of background, write out the word, and be conservative with emoji. (That emoji of a grinning face seems obvious to you but on different devices and with different operating systems looks very different. And even if the emoji looks exactly the same, studies have shown that we do not have a universal (even among friends) understanding of what EXACTLY many emoji mean).

On a deeper level, ask yourself all those questions again but take culture into consideration. How much information is enough?

Many cultures like Brazil, China or Japan will require more background information than Anglo cultures. If you do not give it to them they will “read between the lines” and try to fill in the gaps of information. The problem is they might not make the correct assumptions. So in those cases your wonderfully concise message might not be clear at all.

Are you avoiding jargon, slang and idioms? (Even common phrases like “to get a crack on” or “touch base” might not be known or understood by other cultures.

Is your emoji making the message clearer or not? Different cultures read those faces slightly differently, especially in regards to levels of formality and what is appropriate in workplace written communication.  Before using an emoji ask yourself if there is a way to communicate this feeling or intention using words.

5 Take notice of the overall tone of the message

Ask yourself how informal or formal you should be – and do not assume that a more informal tone is appropriate as long as it is polite and friendly. Most cultures have very specific “rules” around the role of formality. It indicates respect, professionalism and even business “intelligence” in many cultures. For example, In Zimbabwe there is a notable difference in larger versus smaller companies. In larger companies communication is traditional and formal. Protocol in meetings and emails is considered essential. Since larger firms in Zimbabwe are traditional there is also not a lot of information sharing. When it does occur in an email it is formal and more directive (even often written in passive voice). This is quite different in smaller more entrepreneurial companies in Zimbabwe where more informal and frequent communication is the norm.  In those cases email, or even IMs and texts are used.

6 Consider how direct or indirect your message should be

This will vary greatly from culture to culture. In fact, it can also vary within cultures depending on who you are and to whom you are communicating. It is often better to err on the side of formality. For example, Indonesians always use titles like Mr/Ms/Mrs/Dr and the last name when addressing them. Using first names might seem friendly to you but to Indonesians could be interpreted as a lack of respect.

 7 Be understanding when you read an email

You will save yourself lots of time and stress if you just give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Remember, they might not be native speakers. Even if someone has great English, those cultural nuances of the tone and wording of a message are difficult to master. If confused, admit it and ask for clarification.

8 Consider the cultural norms of the person you are emailing

Many indirect cultures like India and Japan, value relationships, hierarchy and not losing face. As a result they will not give you a clear “no”.  This is especially the case if you are the client, the boss or if they do not know you well.

9 Bring culture and personal preferences into the conversation

It can be helpful to share what your communication style is. For example, admitting to a relationship-focused colleague from Spain that you tend to communicate in a direct manner, especially where there is an issue to resolve, can do wonders in taking the emotion and frustration out of a miscommunication.

10 Be willing to take the time to get it right

All of this takes time, effort and some thought. And yes, it seems time consuming at first but with a bit of practice it will become second nature. Give it a try for even 4-5 days and look for any shifts or improvements in your communication- both around quantity or quality.  Really try and focus on the longer benefit that this practice of pausing, taking a step back, and assessing your written virtual communication can have.

About Alyssa Bantle

Alyssa Bantle is an intercultural and communication expert at Crown World Mobility

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