‘The 5 Email Rule’ gets my colleagues talking

A management hack from Free People’s Meredith Bonner: “Eliminate the ping-pong of online communication and just talk.”

At work.

(Photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by Meredith Bonner, a senior divisional merchandise planner at Free People.
To say you should get rid of emails in the workplace is like saying should be a no coffee policy. Work would grind to a halt.

We’d have to find time for (even more) meetings and be in the same place at the same time. We’d hand out bullet-pointed memos, call on people when they’re in the middle of something, we’d have to act out memes. It would be a sad step backwards.

And yet I am trying to cut my team off. Not completely. But setting a limit.

You see, I came back to my desk a while ago and in my inbox once again found a slew of emails between two of my reports who sit a paperclip’s throw away from each other. In the chain they were becoming less and less communicative, less and less action was being clarified and the end of another day was looming without them moving on with a time-sensitive task. And all I could think was “No. More. Emails.”

Lately I have started to see emails treated more like text messages: they go on and on with chatter and piecemeal replies and then… another email. We’ve all seen the email chains that fairly simple requests lead to many replies, an illusion of resolution on the screen only to find there’s no clear idea of responsibility and no completion. But because emails were being sent, everyone thought the task was moving forward.

I know there’s a need for email chains; they can allow people to spell things out clearly, to share with others who should be incorporated ad hoc, to track needs and actions. As a manager, I like that emails can show me people’s successes or where they need help, without me being directly involved in everything. Also, memes.

But sometimes you need to make an honest assessment: If emails are turning into people typing into a vacuum, then you need to upgrade to face-to-face.

So I’ve implemented a “5 Email Rule” with my team. If more than five emails are sent to resolve something, they have to stand up, go to the other in-person and talk about it. Phone calls are OK but face-to-face is the ideal.

I need my team to act efficiently, but also get to know each other, support each other and, as a side effect, gain better professional peripheral vision to anticipate how future projects can improve. When timeliness is key, eliminate the ping-pong of online communication and just talk. After all, if you were just making a decision about where to eat lunch would you allow more than five emails to resolve that?

The easiest outcome I’ve seen from this, as you’d imagine, is speed to action, with the added advantages of asking the right questions and getting the answers they need. I’ve also clarified that extended emails still hold value for them to be able to track progress and timing. But for the day-to-day the goal has remained — five emails and move on.


Companies: Free People
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