MANILA, Philippines – At work, it can feel like everyone's always sizing you up – even when it comes to your work email, often the source of conflict and used by others as a tool to play in office politics.
So how can you navigate your work email without becoming the office's next most-forwarded scandal? What are some of the most common office mistakes?
Apprentice Asia winner Jonathan Yabut and Rappler's career editor Wyatt Ong tackle this and more in a new podcast called The Cube, a space to discuss all the big and little things that matter in your early career.
– Listen to the podcast above or read the transcript below (or both)! –
Wyatt: Today the topic is politics of your work email.
W: Email has actually changed so much over even just the last 5 years. I think the expectation to reply, the window of time has also changed. What do you think?
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What’s an acceptable window of time to reply to an email?
J: It depends on the context of the email. But for me, I have a standard for myself, that when somebody sends me an email, regular important ones, within the next 3 hours or two hours I should be giving a response. If it’s something that’s not really important, can be delayed, at least within 24 hours.
W: I think that differs from industry to industry. If email is your primary mode of communication, you better reply quickly. I know with my team, I would expect a reply almost instantly. But that’s because I think email has changed. Sometimes some of our email threads look like chat threads.
J: You know, I have also one tip. When I know an email is important for one person, but for me it’s not, and I decided not to email immediately, I would send a Viber or WhatsApp message to the person saying, "Hey, I got your email, but I’m doing this today or right now, I will reply tomorrow." At least I manage the expectations of that person.
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What if someone isn’t responding to an important email?
J: But what if the person's not replying to you, Wy?
W: Two situations. Could be internal. If it’s just a work colleague, you can bump it up, that email.
I don’t go in assuming that they have deliberately not replied. It’s easy to believe that, I think, in a media company, because we do get a ton of emails.
I just say "Hey, maybe you haven’t seen this, it would be cool if you could reply soon because we do need to get this going." So I never make it about feelings, and I don’t presuppose –
J: You don’t assume anyone’s reasons for ignoring it.
W: I don’t presuppose that I know that a person has done this and that’s why they’re not replying.
J: I’m gonna share my experience in multinational companies. I worked with people in remote places, maybe another country, another time zone. If someone doesn’t reply, I would usually send a WhatsApp or Viber message and say, "Hey, I sent you a message, maybe you missed it in your inbox." If they don’t still, I give them a call.
My last resort would be to ambush them in their cubicle if ever they’re in the office.
Maybe I’m more patient because in my industry, it’s not as urgent as it could be in media. I understand that they might have other things on their plate. But I start it slow and then I build it up finally to personal interaction.
W: I think the other situation there is if the other person is not replying to you is if the person who’s not replying to you is outside your company and not just somebody that you work with. And I think the strategy has to change a little bit from there, so you do have to give it time. What you don’t say is as important as what you do say.
So the way you would phrase this is, "Hey, I’m just following up on this, I wondered, maybe a call would be better for you?"
If the person who’s reading it is smart –
J: He will read between the lines.
W: That it’s urgent or at least it’s important, please reply very soon. If not, you know, after a while give them a call if it’s really super urgent.
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Ambushing someone in person when you don’t get an answer
W: Now I need to pick up from what you said about ambushing them in your cubicle. If it’s someone you work with reguarly, you probably know their habits, right?
J: True. It’s really invasion of space, right?
W: It is.
You’re also distracting them from their momentum, they might have already been working on something, you can tell when you approach a person if they look busy, if they’ve got their headphones on, they might be busy.
I would say be very conscious –
J: There’s a reason!
W: Be very conscious of this especially if it’s somebody of a different rank, I think it still matters.
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Word war, office fights over email
W: Now on to the subject of addressing your emails to people. The "to" field, the "cc" field, the "bcc" field... Things like these are at the heart of the politics of your work email because it’s not only what you do that will be talked about, it’s also what you don’t do, and who you copy, and who you don’t copy.
So when you’re talking to somebody and you cc their boss, now that’s a tricky situation.
J: I had this experience in my early years. The colleague wasn’t agreeing with what I was saying, so in order for her to increase her power in the email [thread], she copied her boss.
Making me think that she was thinking, "Ok you don’t agree with me? Here’s my boss."
W: And then the next level of how that would escalate is you would copy your boss. Or, I’ve seen this happen – she copies your boss.
J: As if telling on you to your boss, that you’re not doing something right.
W: Right, like, "Hey, you’re not agreeing with me? We’re not getting along? Hey, let me talk to your boss."
J: I’m not a fan of these things, it shows how immature you are in the workplace. For one, it shows other people that you need to get the problem solved. Plus number two, which may be a different topic altogether, I’m not a fan of resolving conflicts over emails as well.
For me, emails are there because you wanna document ideas, you wanna add details to instructions, it’s not a place for you to start a fight or start showing emotions.
W: A lot of conflicts get started over email, but not a lot of conflicts get resolved over email.
So I think when there’s a conflict over email, you must be self-aware enough to try and understand when you should say, "Ok, why don’t we talk about this offline." And in some cases, you might have to be the bigger man.
J: My issue with documenting your fights over emails, the fact that you’re documenting, this can easily be forwarded to someone else. And you don’t want proof of how you could have been so emotional – you don’t want an audience for this.
W: As much as possible, be as straightforward as you can in the "cc" and "bcc" fields, and let the conflicts be resolved offline.
Loop in whomever you need to loop in, but when things get rocky then I think you need to step away. So first you need to make sure that you’re not ruled by your emotions. So if there’s a conflict, don’t resolve that over email.
J: Remember, emails are prone to misunderstanding. The tone, the body language, the real intent of the person emailing, are different versus when you’re saying it personally so don’t depend on it.
W: I think the art of conversation still trumps email in this case.
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How long should emails be?
W: Commenting on the length of emails. What does that say about you and the way you work at your workplace?
J: 10 years of experience in different industries and companies, I realize the pattern: the higher up the person is in their position, the shorter their emails are.
And I think the reason for this is, no one has the time to read novel-length emails. When I send a long email, that’s also burdening the person to read a long email.
So as much as possible write and read shorter messages, use bullet points instead of paragraphs, I think that’s a courtesy that you can show.
I think it says a lot about the coherence of your thoughts. When I test out people to work with me, I always see how their emails look like. Because the longer it takes for them to express an idea, the poorer their communication skills are.
And I would always suggest especially to fresh grads, if you want to make a good impression, learn to write shorter emails as early as you can in your careers, because it will really show.
W: In terms of the length of emails, you can’t help it sometimes there are long things that you must summarize.
J: Especially the technical issues.
W: So I think a great strategy to move forward with that is to make sure that you are able to glean the impact first.
Why would somebody want to read your very long email? You gotta think about what’s in it for the person that you sent it to.
Maybe it impacts their bottom line. Does it impact the way they’re reporting something?
J: They don’t wanna be burdened to call you up asking for more details just because you missed it in that email.
W: So if you wanna send a long email you gotta frame it in the way that will make people understand why it’s there, and see the value in it. So I don’t necessarily wanna write off long emails as irrelevant. There are times –
J: It depends on the context.
W: And sometimes, I gotta say, when there’s a conflict incident, you’re gonna wanna put these things in writing.
But it doesn't mean you want a novel. This is one of those times when clarity will be very important.
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On irrelevant subject lines
J: I wanna ask about subjects of emails, it’s also my other pet peeve. What do you think of people who write long subject headings, or probably people whose subjects have nothing to do with the content of their emails?
W: I have to say one thing that’s always worked with me is if I see my name in the subject.
This is because of the context of where I work, which is that I get a lot of emails that are meant for a large group of people. So if I see my name in the subject, I might be – It’s just like if somebody yelled my name out in the crowd, I would be more likely to answer them. Don’t try that trick too many times, because that also turns stale.
J: For me, if it’s not the name being called out, call out the objective of that email. So for example, if you’re requesting for a budget increase, don’t beat around the bush, explaining what you’re after at the end of the email. State it clearly in the email subject.
W: Please never leave the subject blank, don’t put a smiley face in there. It has to be about what you’re trying to achieve.
J: I think there are also times in the email where the discussion has changed already, change the subject heading because that will give you proper documentation, where to look at, especially if you’re browsing through archives.
W: Well, if you change the subject heading, you will also be creating a new thread in your email [for Gmail]. If you want to keep it all in one thread, then don’t change the subject. But if you are comfortable starting a new thread –
J: Or notify people that you are changing –
W: Better chance it will be bumped up to the top of your inbox, great. But you know what works great, going up to the person and going, "I sent you an email."
Again, that only works if it’s somebody you’re working with, but a lot of the emails you send will be to co-workers anyway.
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Pet peeve: Unnecessary emails
J: Ok, I've encountered this, this is one of my pet peeves. For example, if the HR department sends an email to everyone saying, "News bulletin, no work on this day" or any announcement, and then someone replies to the entire thread, saying "Noted." Don’t you find that rude?
Number one, it’s a waste of space over the Internet, and number two, it’s an extra inbox item that stresses everyone out, because they feel the need to open it, only to find out that it’s a "Noted."
W: In some companies, doing that is a way to be visible to others, especially when the HR people ask you to answer. So it might be a way to be visible but –
J: In general, come on guys! There are rhetorical emails out there that you don’t need to say, yes, noted.
W: Or just reply directly to the HR guy.
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The emails people ignore
W: I would also say form letters, generic letters with the body in them. Asking Jonathan, for example, if you’d like to be a speaker at an event but you get an email that goes, “Hi friend, we’d like you to be a speaker.”
If you couldn’t be bothered to say “Dear Jonathan,” or if you couldn’t be bothered to send him his own email, as opposed to being looped into a huge group – I might not even consider that.
J: When I receive these kinds of emails, I feel like I’m one of the tasks that he just needs to finish.
Personalization does matter. Even if people feel it’s canned or it’s prepared, the fact you took extra effort to write Dear "Name of Person," it means the person matters to you.
And it also makes me think you’re lazy, if you’re copying templates, and emailing them to each person.
W: It goes a long way towards getting a response. So if you aren’t getting a response, try to look at the way you’re sending or writing your emails.
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Spelling and grammar!
W: Now wrapping up, One last thing people forget all the time is getting the spelling of people’s names right.
J: I’ve committed this mistake.
W: So have I, I think everyone has. It could make or break – somebody doesn’t know you, it’s a stranger, not a friend, and you need something from that person –
J: I would’t take you seriously.
W: It also matters how you respond to that. So you should say, “I’m very sorry,” and then never do it again. Every time now, make sure you get it right.
J: I think it’s about attention to detail as well.
W: If you get spelling and grammar wrong in the body of your email, expect to be judged; it may or may not matter, but more often than not, I think it does.
Remember, if it’s high stakes, like a potential employer, proofread the heck out of that email you’re about to send.
On a final note, I think email is another way to represent yourself in the digital space.
J: It’s a documented version of yourself
W: I think that is not going to go away any time soon. Extend these rules to social media, so keep these rules in mind and check back on Rappler.com for more of The Cube.
If you have other topics you might want us to tackle, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll see you soon! – Rappler.com
Jonathan Yabut is the proud Filipino winner of the hit Asian reality TV show, “The Apprentice Asia.” He is Asia’s leading motivational speaker on topics involving leadership, talent development of Gen Y workers, and office productivity. Jonathan is also the founder and managing d...