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3 Ways Email Can Make Meetings More Productive

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 - 13:15
 Email Can Make Meetings More Productive

Is there any aspect of modern business that is the subject of more complaining than meetings? (See my recent post “Use Meeting Complaints to Make Better Meetings”) Well, if there is any contender, it’s email.

Today’s business folk have a love/hate relationship with email that grows more and more passionate as new collaborative technologies allow employees to work remotely. As business journalist Lydia Dishman writes in a column for Fast Company: “We’re always trying to find smarter ways to deal with it, debunking myths about the ‘right’ way to email, and debating if it’s possible to ever reach the mythical inbox zero. But could you do your job without it?”

The clear answer seems to be “no.” As Dishman reports, a Pew Research Center survey last year found six in 10 (61%) American workers claim that email is “very important” to doing their jobs. Email beat use of the Internet, which more than half (54%) of respondents ranked as important, and use of social media, which only 4% of those surveyed said was a necessary job tool.

If email is so popular, then why all the whining? Here’s a theory: Like attending in-person or remote meetings, managing email consumes a lot of time whether in or out of the office. And, like meeting participants, email users feel a lot of time committed to the process is wasted. (See our recent post “10 Ways Business Leaders Can Optimize Meeting Time”)

Seems email and meetings are inseparable business partners, especially since so much time spent using email involves arranging and preparing for meetings. We send meeting appointments by email, of course. And we send meeting agendas by email. Plus, we send background reading—whether as text, attachments or links—by email.

Taken together, these facts mean learning to use email more productively and constructively can help make meetings more productive and constructive. (It’s like not replying to all or inviting everyone to a meeting just because you can; everyone is much happier when it is selective.) Here are three ways to do so:

1. Send Timely Emails about Meetings

On her blog HR Bartender, consultant Sharlyn Lauby advocates setting expectations regarding email response times—and respecting them. Lauby polled one of her focus groups and found an overwhelming consensus regarding acceptable email response time: 24 hours. “Not 10 minutes, not 10 days. 24 hours,” she writes.

Applying this approach to emails about meetings makes sense. Sending an agenda to participants 10 minutes before a meeting gives little time to gather constructive thoughts or information. Sending an agenda 10 days ahead lends ample preparation time but leaves plenty of room for distraction or irrelevance to set in. Giving a day’s notice facilitates focus and allows colleagues to make their own choices about scheduling prep time.

2. Write Specific, Concise Emails about Meetings

One way to save time in meetings is conducting important yet ancillary conversations via email ahead of appointments. But this technique will fail if subject lines are vague or irrelevant. Pulling up past messages and then hitting “reply” can confuse colleagues preparing for meetings, as old subject lines may have nothing to do with the topic of an upcoming session. Take time to open and address a new message or rewrite the subject line of an old one.

Be specific about the purpose. For example, the subject line “Pros & cons of 3 vendors we’re evaluating tomorrow at 3pm” makes clear that there’s vital background in the message. But the effort will be wasted if the text is a continuous block without bullet points or white space to break up the flow. Provide all necessary background but make the material digestible to readers.

 

3. Tackle Complex Topics or Sensitive Issues by Email before Meetings

Complex topics can be difficult to cover in groups when attention spans are compressed by time constraints. Sending detailed materials by email a day before a meeting enables participants to digest background at their own pace. Along the same lines, sensitive issues that pertain to only one or two participants most likely are not appropriate for group discussions.

But separate meetings are not always necessary either. In an article for Harvard Business Review, best-selling author Joseph Grenny counsels:

“While you should still limit its use for sensitive communication, there are best practices that allow you to benefit from email’s efficiency without suffering much from its constraints.”

When should you use email instead of meeting? Grenny recommends asking this question: Can I do this well without seeing the person’s face—and without the person seeing mine? Perhaps a better distinction than seeing a face, particularly for people who aren’t in the same office, is real-time collaboration. Can an issue be discussed in a linear mode or does it need tangential flexibility better served by a conference?

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