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Do’s and Don’ts of Email Etiquette in a Virtual Workplace

Executive Summary

Emailing has been a reliable mode of communication for employees since its creation in the 1970s. With many companies transitioning physical teams to virtual ones, managers and employees are using email more than ever to organize tasks and monitor progress.

  • The ease and speed of email communications is both beneficial in terms of efficiency and detrimental in terms of productivity.
  • To fully utilize the capabilities of this powerful communication medium, professionals must realize the context of every email they send.
  • Understand the universal tenets of email etiquette in order to send an effective email that is clear, actionable, and polite.

If you’re a part of one of the several workplaces that has gone virtual over the past few weeks, your email inbox is likely out of control. With face-to-face interaction limited and technological adaptation slow, email has become the primary source of communication.

Email is great for many reasons. Employees typically feel more comfortable emailing someone in upper management than they would calling that person or knocking on a manager’s door for a conversation. email also makes it easier to share information, whether it’s between team members, within a single department, or to every staff member in a global company. With email, it’s easier to keep people in the know and harder for people to claim that they “didn’t get the word.”

We’re Losing Any Resemblance of Email Etiquette

With all its advantages, one might come to believe that email is the greatest thing in organizational communication since the ballpoint pen. So why do so many people mention email as one of the major communication problems in their workplace?

Because of the speed with which we can create one message and its lack of formality, email can easily cause problems, misinform, waste time, and reflect poorly on the sender. Part of the problem lies in the fact that email is a hybrid communication medium. It combines the spontaneity and informality of spoken communication with the permanence of written communication.

One of the advantages of written communication lies in the writer’s ability to spend the necessary time crafting a message that says what he or she really intends to say—through drafting, editing, and proofreading. It enables the writer to translate thoughts into a clear, precise, and readable message that addresses all of the issues, contains the correct tone, and elicits the desired information or response from the recipient.

3 Factors to Consider Before Sending Any Email

Email communications vary greatly from in-person communications. You must know a few things about your intended recipient/recipients before sending.

  1. Know the recipient’s communication preference. Some people still prefer other forms of communication over email, often because the sheer number of emails (many of which are company wide or information-only messages) causes specific messages to get lost in the crowd. Some people prefer calls, while other people prefer texting or instant messaging. You will have a better chance of getting your message through if you know your receiver’s communication preferences.
  2. Consider the reader’s disposition and perspective. Another tricky feature of written communication lies in the fact that the message is static once you send it. Unlike spoken messages, which you can quickly modify if you see the person getting annoyed or displeased, your written messages are vulnerable to the reader’s mood, existing perceptions, and attitudes toward the subject—and toward you. The more difficult or complex the message, the greater the opportunity for confusion, misinterpretation, or anger. If you find yourself struggling with the choice of words and the phrases as you write the email, chances are you’re dealing with a message that would work better in another form. Choose another medium, preferably face-to-face, but at the very least consider making a telephone call so that you can explain yourself and the other person can ask questions or clarify.
  3. Know that an email can produce unintended interpretations. Sometimes, perhaps because you sent the message off hurriedly or even because the receiver is not in the best of moods, an email you send can be interpreted in a way that’s entirely different from what you had in mind. In reply, the recipient may send a surly message or otherwise show his or her irritation. Your first reaction may be to fire back a real zinger to justify or defend yourself. However, the wise choice may be to nip that exchange in the bud by changing the medium immediately. Pick up the telephone or, if possible, go to that person’s office or cubicle and talk through the matter. Apologize for the misunderstanding, if necessary. The longer the tension festers, the bigger deal it will be. Catch it early, and both of you will forget it quickly.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sending an Effective email

Here are some common sense suggestions for ways to maximize the advantages of email and avoid turning it into a self-inflicted disadvantage or worse, an obstacle to your success.

DO use sarcasm, humor, or jargon sparingly—if at all. Being conversational also includes the temptation to use humor, sarcasm, or industry jargon, sometimes excessively. Remember that in written communication, you depend entirely on the words; you don’t have the support from your voice and body language to reinforce that you were only kidding when you made that stinging remark. All the receiver of the message has to work with is your words and his or her interpretation. For that reason, writing in a straightforward manner is a smart move. Even if you follow your biting or sarcastic remarks with an emoticon—those little icons that signify emotions, such as the colon followed by the right parenthesis to indicate a smiley face—you may still come across as condescending or insincere. Limit or avoid any remarks that your reader may misinterpret—particularly if you don’t know that person well.

DO use the same courtesy that you would in a face-to-face conversation or a formal letter. “Please,” “Thank you,” “I hope you’re well,” and “Have a nice weekend” are little touches that don’t take much time but put a thoughtful, human face on your message. Think of what you would be saying to that person if you were having a “live” conversation, and use the same courtesies that you would in that situation.

And while we’re on the subject of courtesy, use courtesy titles if you are emailing someone for the first time. If “Mr. Gray” wants you to call him “Tom,” he can let you know that by signing his reply with just his first name. Even if you feel comfortable using someone’s first name, avoid assuming that the person responds to a nickname. Charles may not want to be “Chuck,” David may hate “Dave,” and Gwendolyn may not like “Gwen.” People’s names are extremely important to them; don’t take liberties with them.

DO compose a clear subject line. If your emails are going to penetrate the gridlock of blast messages, general information, spam, and trivia, you need to take steps to get the reader’s attention.

Rather than a subject line such as “Our conversation” try “Answers to your question about next year’s training budget.” By jogging the reader’s memory and making the email relevant, you improve your chances of getting a quick response if you need one. In addition, you make it easier for the recipient to identify the contents of the email in the future, should the person be searching for specific information. And, if the focus changes during the email exchange, make sure that you update your subject line.

Use the “Urgent” or “Important” designation with care. If you’re like Michael Scott’s character in “The Office,” you’re probably over doing it:

“I mark all emails as Urgent A, Urgent B, Urgent C or Urgent D. Urgent A is the most important. Urgent D, you don’t even really have to worry about.” 

If you overdo it, you won’t get the reader’s attention when something is really urgent or important. Opinions vary about whether to keep the thread of all the messages within a series of emails. You do that, of course, by hitting “Reply” rather than “New Message” to respond to the sender. Some people suggest that the person who sent the original message doesn’t need to see it again, but after a topic has gone back and forth a few times, over hours or even days, it’s often helpful to get the whole picture in one email rather than having to go back to the inbox to reconstruct the history.

DO keep your email messages short—no more than a full screen. A long message will fall into the “I’ll read it later” category, which often translates to “never.” If you need to communicate a long message, send it in hard copy or attach it to the email as a separate document. However, in the latter case, first make sure that your recipient has the software to open your attachment.

DO review before you send. Even if you don’t consider the email sensitive, review it a couple of times before you send it to make sure that your tone isn’t brusque or demanding. Often something as simple as putting the word “please” in front of a sentence will soften the tone. If after reviewing the email you’re still uncertain about how the reader may receive it, put it in the “Draft” folder for a while. When you go back to it later, you can look at it with a fresh eye and judge it more objectively. If you’re still not sure, consider having someone else look at it before you send it. You should exercise the same care when you are replying to a message. Also, along with reviewing your message for the appropriate tone, make sure that your reply answers all the questions or addresses the issues the sender raised.

DO respect each other’s privacy. Privacy is in short supply in a world of easily accessible information. Using electronic mail exposes you and your recipients to contacts they may not want. If you’re mailing to a list, use mail merge or send the email to yourself, with the mailing list as a blind carbon copy (bcc). That way none of the recipients will see each other’s email addresses. Also out of respect for other’s privacy, always ask permission before forwarding another person’s email. And never edit or change the original message. When you’re the original sender of a message, and you don’t mind having the receiver forward it, indicate your permission at the beginning of the message.

DO reply in a timely manner. One of the main attributes of email is its immediacy. People send emails because they generally expect a quick response. Respond to your emails, preferably within the same business day but certainly within twenty-four hours. If you can’t deal with the email’s content within that time, reply to the sender acknowledging that you received the message and stating when you will respond.

DON’T confuse informality with carelessness. As in any written communication, the errors can stay around to haunt you for a long time. While most people are more tolerant of the occasional typo in email messages, they will notice consistent violations of spelling, grammar, and structure, and their opinion of you will doubtless be influenced by it.

  • Use standard punctuation and capitalization.
  • Edit your emails carefully for grammar and spelling. (Don’t forget to use the spell check feature, but don’t rely on it completely.)
  • Remember that punctuation misuse can change the meaning of your sentence altogether. Note how punctuation changes the meanings of the following sentences:

A woman without her man is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

You get the idea.

  • Don’t use all caps or all lowercase in emails. Use of all caps gives the impression that the sender is shouting, and they’re harder to read.

DON’T use the “Reply to All” feature with reckless abandon. Unless everyone who got the original email really needs to see your reply, simply reply to the person who sent the email. This practice helps avoid needless clutter in everyone else’s inbox and the waste of time reading irrelevant messages.

DON’T reply to spam. Avoid becoming an appealing target to spammers by never responding to spam. Even when you send the “Remove me from the list” message, by opening and replying to spam you are confirming that you have a working email address, exactly what the spammers want to know. Simply delete spam or use a program that filters it automatically.

DON’T circulate emails with offensive or defamatory content. If you receive such emails, delete them immediately and politely ask the sender not to send anymore emails to you. Having those emails in your inbox could cause problems for both you and your organization, particularly if you work for a large company.

Leveraging Email’s Advantages

Even though we all sometimes complain about how many emails we receive, email offers a great opportunity to stay in touch with very little effort. If you are alert to its pitfalls and take the necessary steps to avoid careless wording or thoughtless comments, as well as unnecessarily flooding others with information they don’t need, you can use this tool to increase your visibility and impress others with your efficiency, expertise, and ability to share information. Handled effectively, email remains today’s major way to remain current and in the communication loop.

Bring It Home

In our instant message culture, it’s easy to take shortcuts in our communications. For a virtual workplace to succeed, emojis, slang, jargon, and poor grammar are out of the question. Following proper email etiquette, treat every email you send like a presentation. Not only will this ensure that your message is clear and less able to be misconstrued, but it will also encourage you to send less emails with a greater amount of substance. What is your biggest challenge with emailing amongst your virtual team members? Where do most communication breakdowns occur? Share your struggles and successes in the comments.

Beverly Langford

Beverly Y. Langford is President of LMA Communication, Inc. ® a consulting, training, and coaching firm that works with organizations and individuals on strategic communication, message development, effective interpersonal communication skills, team building, and leadership development.

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