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About Overcome Email Overload with Microsoft Outlook 2000

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Other email material by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood:

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email

Finding Email Addresses

Why I Don't Like Electronic Greeting Cards

Email Bibliography

Humorous looks at email:

The Dark Side of Web Publishing

Email vs. Letters

Hyphenate or not -- Email or E-mail?

Chapter 11 - Improve Your Company's Email Effectiveness

Excerpted from Overcome Email Overload with Eudora 5
Copyright © 2001 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Changing your own behavior--filtering, using pre-written responses, writing good subject lines, providing adequate context, and so forth--will make getting through your email much easier. However, at some point, you will be limited by how well your company deals with email.

Your company's email behaviors might have been the result of conscious decisions, but it's more likely that its culture evolved spontaneously. Your company can probably improve its email effectiveness.

There are three basic ways to change behavior in an company: improve resources, provide training, and set policy. This chapter will discuss each method and suggest specific examples of each that can help improve email efficiency.

Improve Resources

Providing good resources can make desirable behaviors easier and undesirable behaviors harder or impossible. Technology is one powerful resource for changing behavior. Unfortunately, technological changes almost always cost money--to buy (or develop), configure, and maintain the software.

If you are technically proficient, you might be able to influence your company's email usage by developing one or more of the following resources.

Web-based Mailing List Interface

If your company sets up mailing lists for different functional groups, your company will be more productive. Not only do mailing lists make it easy to send messages to the right people, they make filtering extremely easily. This improves people's ability to organize and prioritize.

Making it easy for people to set up mailing lists is thus good for the company. Something that works well is to have a web-based interface to mailing lists with information on

  • what lists are available
  • what their policies are
  • who the "owner" of the list is
  • who has subscribed
  • how to subscribe
  • how to unsubscribe

A searchable Web-based archive with all the messages from a list is also very useful.

  • An archive helps people who delete a message and then decide later that they wanted to see it.
  • It is easier to catch up after an absence if the mailing list messages are in an archive.
  • An archive is a useful resource for training new employees.
  • An archive creates a record of what decisions were made and why.
  • People are sometimes a bit more polite and careful if they know that their comments are stored.
External Subscribers

Letting people from outside the company subscribe to mailing lists has benefits and disadvantages. If your company allows people from outside the company to be on a mailing list, employees can send confidential information outside the company accidentally. (Because senders don't see who is on a list when they mail to it, it is easy to make that mistake.) On the other hand, if your company does not allow external subscribers, then nobody can set up lists of customers and vendors that you might want to correspond with in bulk. One compromise solution is to have a privileged set of people who can create and maintain mailing lists with both internal and external subscribers.

Your company might also want to have a different naming convention for internal-only and internal/external lists. That way, people can see quickly how confidential messages to the list are.

Geographical Mailing Lists

There should be a mailing list for every geographical area so that messages that apply only to one location don't also go to other locations. The classic example of what happens if you don't have this is everyone worldwide getting messages like this:

Subject: blue Ford 2RSM183 - headlights on

Facilities closures, maintenance, and party announcements are frequently mis-addressed as well.

Once your company has geographic mailing lists, training can impress upon people that they shouldn't waste people's time by sending to the wrong list. Peer pressure can keep people from making that mistake twice.

Reply-to-All vs. Reply-to-Sender

Mailing list servers should be configured so that the From: header has the author of the message, not the listname address. This will ensure that simple replies (including out-of-office messages) go to just the original author, not the whole list. (It would be nice if people wouldn't send automatic responses to mailing lists, but the more people you have on a list, the more likely that someone will make that mistake.)


Email attachments can contain viruses. Hopefully, everyone will have the latest virus-checking software on their desktop computer. However, people are lazy. Unfortunately, if one person fails to install the latest virus-checker, that can affect the entire company. It is slower but safer to check all attachments automatically before the receivers have a chance to see them.

Certain types of attachments are more prone to viruses than others. In particular, executable files (with extension .exe ) can be deadly, and are rarely useful. Your company might wish to delete all .exe attachments that come from outside the company.

Eliminate Duplicates

If your company's mailing list software can remove redundant copies of messages, that can save people a lot of aggravation. There are times when a message is appropriate for several different mailing lists. If people subscribe to multiple lists, however, that means they could get multiple copies of the same message--which gets dull quickly. Sending each person only one copy of a message will help people get through their email faster.

Develop a Good Web Site

A good Web site for your company or department means that people can refer their correspondents to information on a Web page instead of creating it all themselves. For example, if your company has a Web page with a map and directions to its location, people won't have to spend time writing directions. They can instead send the URL of the map.

Any sort of information that people ask about regularly is helpful to put on a Web site. These include things like benefit details, lists of medical providers, technical specifications, company charts, and even floorplans.

Develop Corporate- or Department-Wide Responses

It might save time for someone in the company to carefully develop stationery for common questions, then make them available to the whole company. For example, a non-profit might make a mission statement available. A corporation might want to have a blurb directing people to the public relations department:

I'm sorry, I really am not the appropriate person to discuss this with. You need to talk to Sal Mgabi in our Public Relations department. His phone number is +1-217-555-7777x77.


A Customer Support department might have a large number of canned responses that would be useful to have easily available, like:

The problem of the Harik Quicksilver Electric Bagpipes overheating has been fixed in release To download the patch, go to



The overheating is only a problem if all the drones are blocked. Keeping the drones clear will prevent this problem.


Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to ask.


Good Email Software

Eudora is an excellent general-purpose email program. However, for people doing customer support, Customer Relationship Management software might be better.

Customer Relationship Management (abbreviated CRM or eCRM) software makes it easier to keep track of and use a company's pre-written responses. While these are most useful for customer support personnel, they can also be useful for anybody who gets many routine questions.

I have found that an "auto-suggest" filter action is extremely useful. I was able to get through messages about ten times faster when I had a system that let me select (with one click) from several suggested responses. I could then, if I chose, edit the response(s) before sending them.

This isn't as fast as responding completely automatically, but allowing a human being to make the choices cuts down on the number of inappropriate responses. Humans are still a lot smarter than computers.

Most CRM software will also allow you to track all communication that you have had with the sender of the incoming message. Again, this is most useful for support personnel, but anybody who manages a lot of communications--like people in sales or fund raising--could find it useful.

Provide Alternatives to Distracting Messages

People, left to their own devices, will generate all kinds of messages that are not directly related to work. Some of the most common non-work messages are about

  • goods to buy, sell or give away (for example, "spare ticket to Monday's football game")
  • requests for recommendations of products or services
  • jokes
  • notification that food is available (for example, "leftover bread and cheese in conference room C4")
  • notification that automobile headlights are on

Eliminating these messages might be difficult and create bad will. What your company can do, however, is create better channels for sending non-essential messages, as I describe below.

Mailing Lists

If you set up specific mailing lists for the distracting messages, then people can filter them into low-priority mailboxes. For example, a mailing list for leftover food would be easy to filter.

Web-based Services

Another, more sophisticated, option is to set up web-based services. For example, your company could set up a simple Web-based application that would send mail only to the owner of the car whose lights are on. (People would have to enter their license plate numbers, but their reward for doing so is high.) Your company might also provide Web-based applications that tell where to find leftover food, a marketplace, and a place to review products and services.

Where Are Your Colleagues?

Another useful Web-based application is one that lets employees check in and check out of the office. Then people can use the Web application to find out where someone is. This is better than having coworkers send email to everybody whenever they leave the office: those who don't care that someone is gone won't have to read a message about it.

Out-of-Office Messages

Sometimes, casual users can set up their email system to automatically respond to incoming messages with a "out-of-office" message:

Subject: out of the office until 29 Feb

I am at the Floss Expo in Fargo, ND and will not be returning until 29 Feb. I will be checking my voicemail on a daily basis. If you need immediate assistance, please contact Chantelle Williams at x2202.


However, casual users usually set up their out-of-office messages to respond to ALL incoming messages. This means that anybody who sends a message to a mailing list frequently gets back several out-of-office messages. If both the sender and receiver have out-of-office messages, their email programs can get into a loop where they keep telling each other that they are out of the office. Additionally, people sometimes forget to turn their out-of-office messages off.

Given all that, it is a good idea to set up a Web-based application that configures out-of-office messages so that

  • only one message per absence (or per week) goes to any individual account
  • out-of-office messages don't go to mailing lists (or perhaps to any external accounts)
  • bounce messages don't generate a out-of-office message
  • messages that contain the phrases "vacation" or "out of the office" don't generate a out-of-office message.
  • out-of-office messages stop automatically at the scheduled end of the absence

It is very valuable for the company to set up filters that remove unsolicited commercial email before it gets anywhere close to the end user. Junk email can take up an enormous amount of time and energy.

While the filters in Useful Filter Recipes are good starting points for filters, having a set of pre-made filters might help your company's productivity. Your company could then customize the filters for its specific situation. Employees could use the pre-made filters as guides in developing their own.

Confidential Material

Email makes it very easy to transmit confidential material, but email has very poor security. Anything highly confidential should be sent via a trusted courier. One way to make it more difficult to disclose confidential information is to have a computer program examine all outgoing messages for a set of words marking confidentiality. For example, Mabel's company could prevent people from emailing documents containing the phrase Floss Recycling Inc. Confidential .

Messages from the Company

From time to time, someone will need to send a message to the entire company about policy changes, facilities closures, and so on. For large companies, it can be dangerous to send that message from a personal account. The sender might get hundreds of messages from employees. (If nothing else, there could be a lot of out-of-office messages.) On the other hand, if updates come from an email address that is not attached to a person, it can seem very cold and impersonal.

One way around this is to make the message from an impersonal address, but to give the name of the person who sent the message. Then ask that follow-up comments go to a web-based discussion forum. Ask that people not post messages unless they have something new to add, but add a way to count "I like this" or "I don't like this" votes.

Provide Training

Many of the tools above enforce good practice, but good training can encourage good practices. If your company does not have the technical resources to develop tools like the above, adding training on email effectiveness can be valuable.

Even if your company has the time, money, and skill to develop resources, training might be useful. Good resources won't help everything; in particular, technical aids do a poor job of helping people write more understandable messages.

Training is particularly productive if the unwanted behavior is the result of uninformed or unconscious decisions. Showing the benefits of doing things a different way might be all that it takes to change the behavior.

If your company can come to agreement on what behaviors are acceptable, peer pressure can enforce those behaviors. If five hundred people all reply, "that wasn't appropriate" to an unacceptable message, the sender isn't likely to make that mistake again. To make this work, however, the culture must accept or encourage this type of vigilante justice.

The disadvantage of training everybody is that it takes time and energy--which usually means money.

Signal Words and Abbreviations in the Subject

Even if your company doesn't have the resources to make more appropriate homes for distracting messages, it can get similar results if everybody uses the same signal words in Subject: headers. If people use the signal words consistently, those who are not interested in a certain type of message can filter them into low-priority mailboxes or delete them outright. Examples of useful signal words are:

  • OT: for messages that are Off-Topic--not directly related to a mailing list's topic
  • REQ: for REQuest--meaning the sender wants the receiver to do something
  • LIGHTS: for messages about cars whose headlights are on
  • FOOD: for messages that there is leftover food available for the taking
  • WHERE: to notify people of a temporary absence
  • OOO: for automatic responses that the sender is out of the office
  • FS: for messages advertising something For Sale
  • WTB: for messages expressing a desire to purchase something (Wanted To Buy)
  • EOM to show that the subject line contains the entire message
  • TC: for Time Critical

It doesn't really matter what words people use, as long as everybody uses them consistently. Your company will be just fine if everybody uses AR: (for Action Request) instead of REQ:. But if some people use AR:, some use REQ:, some use AI:, and some use DIRECTIVE:, it will be harder for people to set up filters.

Training can also reduce confusion about common abbreviations. While FYI (For Your Information) and BTW (By The Way) are relatively common outside of email, there are a number of abbreviations that aren't seen often except in email:

  • IMHO - In My Humble Opinion
  • RTFM - Read The Manual
  • LOL - [I] Laughed Out Loud
  • ROTFL - [I am] Rolling On The Floor Laughing
  • RSN - Real Soon Now
  • TIA - Thanks In Advance
  • YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary (meaning "your experiences might be different")
  • <g> - grin

In addition, every company has its own acronyms and code names. For example, Intel Corporation uses NCG to mean "New College Graduate." NASA has so many acronyms that its employees joke that it stands for "National Acronym-Slinging Agency."

Alas, frequently someone will send a message to a huge mailing list asking questions like, "What does IMHO mean?" If there are 500 people on the mailing list, the message will probably annoy 450 of them.

To let everyone know what these words and abbreviations mean, your company might want to have a Web page with a list of the signal words, abbreviations, and code words that your company uses. Even if someone explains the signal words and abbreviations once to every employee, there can still be trouble in the future. People will forget, new situations will call for new signal words, and new people will join the company.

The new hire orientation should impress upon people that if they don't understand a phrase, they should not ask everybody on a mailing list. Tell them to ask either the sender of the message or the person responsible for the acronyms Web page.


Different companies have different attitudes towards signatures. It can be worthwhile to discuss signatures at new-hire orientation. Even if there isn't a company policy, it would be good for people to understand the issues surrounding signatures.

Some people like to see signatures with the name, phone number, and/or position in the company for internal mail. Others prefer to receive uncluttered messages. They figure that if they want a colleague's contact information, they can look it up in the company directory. Some corporate cultures allow humorous sayings in the signature. This can be fun. It can also look unprofessional.

For external mail, your company might want to ask people to include lots of information in a text signature. People outside the company probably can't see your company directory.

Priority Levels

Priority levels can be very useful--if everyone knows what the priority means. Unfortunately, left to their own devices, people will use radically different priorities for the same circumstances. Some will never set a priority and others will make everything top priority. Some will set priority according to how important it is to the sender while others will set priority according to how important it is to the receiver. Thus, many readers ignore priority levels completely. (Some even use filters to change the priority level.)

Another problem is that priority is a combination of urgency and importance, but there is a big difference between the two. For example, "Do you want to go to lunch with me in an hour" is high urgency but low importance. On the other hand, "I will need a bone marrow transplant in a year. Please register to be a bone marrow donor" is high importance but low urgency.

Coming up with and training people on some company-wide guidelines for priority levels will make them more useful for everybody.

Voice Instead of Email

There are times when phone or face-to-face conversations are better than email. If the topic is emotionally charged or if there are many intertwined issues to resolve, voice is frequently better. Education is the key to getting people to use the right medium for the message.

Response Speed

Differences in response speed can cause problems. If someone who thinks that people should respond to email immediately sends email to someone who replies a week later, there could be trouble.

It is difficult to set firm policy on response time because of unintended consequences. If the boss orders that everyone must respond within a certain amount of time, people will probably set up their filters to respond to all messages with "I got your message and am looking into your issue." This is not helpful.

If your company makes a policy insisting that employees must answer messages in a certain amount of time or not at all, then people might choose to never respond. This is also not helpful.

Your company might want to suggest to its employees that if they can tell it will take more than a day to find the answer to a question, that they should send a courtesy response. This response should say why they can't respond and when they expect to know enough to be able to respond.

It could be that some people have slow response time simply because they are buried in email. In that case, some training on how to manage email might be appropriate. Give them a copy of this book or get them to email management training. If they still can't cope with the flood of messages, perhaps they need email management software (as described in Good Email Software) or an assistant to help them deal with all the messages.

Write Email Well

Writing clear messages can reduce the number of responses that people send. If quotes are not an appropriate length, if lines aren't wrapped well, if messages are too long, or if they cover too many topics, it will take longer to finish the conversation.

It is difficult to order people to write messages well because people almost never try to write poorly. Training, however, can be useful. Give everybody a copy of this book, send them to a class, or develop a Web page with hints, tips, and links to resources for writing well.


Some people really hate emoticons, despite how helpful they can be in conveying emotional tone properly. Some language purists find emoticons to be an assault on proper usage. Some people think emoticons are unprofessional. Other people use text-to-speech processors, which render emoticons unintelligible or invisible.

Your company might want to make sure that everyone understands the reasons for emoticons as well as their limitations.

Set Policy

One way to change behavior is to put it into the company policy. The benefits of doing things by decree are that it can be efficient and costs very little directly. The bad news is that the indirect costs can be high if people don't like the policy: grumbling and unhappiness can hurt productivity. Furthermore, there are always gray areas: behaviors that decrees can't cover or that can't be enforced. For example, "write better messages" is not a meaningful order. People don't usually write poorly on purpose.

Email is a new enough medium for most companies that sometimes it isn't clear who is responsible for making high-level decisions about email. Even if you aren't part of the management chain, you might be able to affect your company's email culture by asking the senior management, "Who is responsible for email policy decisions?" Getting an answer to that question means that somebody now has ownership of the problem. This, by itself, might be a big enough step to lead to changes.

Each company's management will have differing abilities to dictate policy, depending upon the company's overall culture. The military can tell people what to do much more easily than a charity staffed by volunteers.

That said, there are times when management needs to set policies about email usage. Management should make policies clear for any issues with legal implications, as in the following examples.

Personal Use

If your company does not have a policy against it, people will use email for their personal use. This can be good. People might not need to leave work if they can take care of errands by email. Email is also quieter than talking on the telephone--which people who work in high-density offices will appreciate.

Personal use can also hurt productivity. People can end up spending a lot of time on personal email. Jokes, hoaxes, and chain letters can be a particularly wasteful.

However, limiting employees' email access can make them resentful, especially if other companies in your area allow it. Limiting email access might limit your ability to attract and retain employees.

Your company probably needs to have a policy on acceptable behavior, which could include a recommendation that employees use a separate account for personal messages.

Illegal Uses

Many things are just as illegal on-line as they are off-line. Depending upon your jurisdiction, the following can be illegal: harassment, stalking, libel, fraud, gambling, and pyramid schemes. Your company should have a clear policy stating that your company will not tolerate illegal uses of email. Be sure to give clear examples of unacceptable behavior.


Depending upon your jurisdiction, your company might have the legal right to examine employees' email. There are some situations where clearly it makes sense for a company to exercise that right. For example, system administrators sometimes need to glance at someone's email to make sure that they fixed a problem with the email system properly.

However, employees will probably get upset if someone reads their messages for no obvious reason. Your company might want to say who can read email under what circumstances. For example, the policy could say that reading someone else's email is cause for disciplinary action except when:

  • fixing a problem in the email system
  • developing a defense for a legal case
  • providing subpoenaed material
  • investigating illegal activities (including theft of intellectual property)
  • authorized by a vice president

The company's email privacy policy should be stated clearly, perhaps at orientation or in the personnel policy.


One thing that is definitely a policy issue is assignment of email addresses. Does your company allow people to choose any address that they like? Or does it insist on a formulaic address, like "first initial-last name"? People might want to choose their own email addresses, but others might have a better chance of finding addresses if your company uses a set formula. On the other hand, a formula might cause people to send email to the wrong place. For example, if a second lee shows up, the first lee might frequently get the second lee 's email. If everyone has an unusual email address, people have an incentive to look it up.

Another issue is public visibility of email addresses. If everyone has a formulaic address, then it's easy for outsiders to guess email addresses. This can be good (customers who lose an employee's business card can still find him or her) and bad (recruiters from other companies can send email to your employees).

Your company might choose to assign you two different email addresses: the formulaic one to give to outside people and a user-selected address to give to inside people. Which address someone uses will show where the email came from and make it easier to filter.

Your company might formally recommend that employees use a different email address for any public correspondence (like Usenet newsgroups).


What formats are okay to send as attachments? If a minority isn't able to view attachments in a certain format, what is the policy? Is the minority obliged to find software that can read it or is the majority obliged to find a format that everybody can read?

One way to address this issue is to have a list of approved formats and to issue a policy directive that everyone must have the appropriate software loaded on their computer. Another approach is to say that the person requesting the favor bears the burden of translating the document into a usable format.

It is also helpful to set limits on the size of attachments people can send. Attachments can be very large, and if the attachment goes to 500 people, that's 500 disk drives that the attachment takes space on. Instead, your company might want people to put large documents on a file server or Web server.

People Who Circumvent Technology Channels

If your company has technically-savvy employees, they might be able to set up their own email servers and/or Internet connections. Sometimes there might be good reasons for doing this. For example, if someone is developing new email list software, they will have to set up their own list servers.

However, these unofficial servers can sometimes bypass important security features. Your company might want to state that setting up an email server without the prior written permission of the Information Technology department is grounds for disciplinary action.

Email vs. Telephone

Some people don't like email. I know people who don't read their email because "if it's important, they'll telephone." This eliminates many of the benefits of email.

Frequently this culture clash forms along age, gender, and job position. While many older workers are quite comfortable with email, the minority of people who are not comfortable with email tend to be older. Older men, particularly, don't always type well because typing used to be "woman's work" and low-status. The human-contact people--sales, marketing, human resources, and so on--also tend to like the telephone more than engineers do. Engineers tend to be more comfortable with email than non-technical people are.

Given that senior management tends to be older men with non-technical backgrounds, there can be more email resistance as you move up the management chain. This can make it difficult to change policy. The senior executives might find it a loss of face to admit difficulty with email, so they might not be receptive to training or persuasion, either.

The best way to get people to read their email is to make it part of everyone's performance evaluation: does the employee respond promptly to requests from others? If email messages are a significant part of your corporate communication, your company might also want to ask all job applicants how comfortable they are with email.


Developing resources, providing training, and setting policy are all ways of improving an company's email productivity. Useful resources include:

  • Web-based applications to archive mailing lists, communicate with list servers, indicate where someone has gone configure out-of-office auto-responses, and discuss corporate announcements
  • Web-based applications Web-based applications for
  • software to monitor outgoing messages for confidential information
  • software to eliminate duplicate messages
  • software to remove viruses
  • for messages about food, car lights left on, items for sale, and recommendations
  • a good Web site
  • pre-written responses
  • pre-written filters

Training can improve understanding of:

  • abbreviations and signal words
  • signatures
  • when to use voice instead of email transactions
  • appropriate response times
  • when to use Bcc:
  • how to write clearer email messages
  • when to use emoticons

Management should clarify what is expected regarding:

  • personal use of email
  • illegal uses
  • privacy
  • email addresses
  • attachments
  • setting up alternate email servers
  • reading email

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