Thinking Outside the Inbox: Email Management

Nat Conard | July 23, 2023

If you have never despaired at the state of your email inbox or felt that reading and replying to email consumes an inordinate amount of your time then, please, feel free to skip this article. If, however, you’re among the other 99% of school leaders, read on!

Google searches or lamentations (public or private) about email management yield endless advice about how to manage the multitude of emails that end up in our inboxes every day. Whether we implement them or not, we are all familiar with a range of strategies, from Inbox Zero, to using filters, rules, and filing systems, to turning off notifications, to scheduling time each day or hour to check email. These strategies, however, are what I would call downstream solutions designed to minimize distraction and to process, as efficiently as possible, the emails that we receive. They are answers to the question, “How can I manage the flood of emails that I get?” And many of these strategies are effective… at flood cleanup.

I suggest that it might serve you–and your school–better if you looked, to continue the metaphor, upstream from your inbox and instead asked the question, “How can we reduce and improve the reliance on and use of email in our school?” This is not a trivial question nor does it have simple answers, as the use of email is driven by a combination of factors, including school culture, established practice, policies, and expectations. However, as a school leader, you have agency! Remember, whether you lived “back then” or not, there was a time when email did not exist.

In my experience, most email volume issues can be addressed by culture and behavior change supported by policies. Because you’re probably not the only one in the school who finds that their inbox demands more of their time than they would like, you might want to consider making this a summer project for the senior leadership team. The suggestions that follow are just that, suggestions–they are not a system to be implemented. If you and your team elect to tackle the email challenge, you will undoubtedly come up with additional insights and solutions–we would love to hear them!

A good starting point is to take some time to analyze the emails that are filling your inbox. I realize that this may seem a little like building a plane while you’re flying it, but there are ways to tackle the challenge, and the payoff makes it worthwhile. The analysis should focus on, let’s say, the prior week’s emails (which means that you might have to modify your inbox management practices for that week, so that the emails are there to be analyzed!). Things to assess might include:

Who is sending you emails? (how many are from senior administrators, how many are from faculty and staff, how many are from parents, how many are from Board members, etc.).

What is the breakdown of types of emails? For example:

– How many are quick questions (when is the next meeting?)?

– How many are purely informational (I told so-and-so that….)?

– How many are to you and on how many are you cc’ed?

– How many are chains of multiple back-and-forth emails?

How many are to distribution lists (“all faculty and staff,” for example)?

– How many are newsletters, marketing emails, notifications, etc.?

– How many are from people whose offices are within sight of your office, or no more than a 30 second walk away?

Once you have an understanding of the profile of your inbox, you are in a position to reflect on how your school culture, policies, and expectations–and your own and others’ behaviors–contribute to or reinforce a cycle of excessive email use, and, by extension, you can reshape the email landscape.

Some steps that have worked for other organizations and that you might consider include:

1) Restrict permission to email to distribution lists, such as “all faculty” to senior administrators and a few select support team members.

2) Make it a policy that any email to a distribution list puts the recipients in the bcc field to eliminate the reply-all problem.

3) Ensure that every email has a clear and descriptive subject line–in fact, establish an expectation that emails whose sole purpose is to make a short announcement put that announcement in the subject line.

4) For many, many reasons, never carry on conversations over email, especially if there are multiple participants.

5) Once protocols and policies are in place and have been communicated, reinforce them. For example, do not reply to emails that do not follow protocol or policy–if you do reply to them, no one’s behavior will change (alternatively, try a brief reply: “Please see me.”).

6) Consider that in addition to an expectation that emails should be replied to within a certain time period (many schools use 24 hours), there are good reasons not to reply to any non-urgent emails immediately, as doing so rewards and reinforces the use of email when it may not be necessary.

These steps are only some of many that you and your team will think of when you begin to shift your mindset from cleaning up after the flood has hit your inbox to upstream flood mitigation. And, to beat the metaphor to death, tackle the issue now during the email dry season, because once faculty are back on campus, it will be too late!

Interested in learning more about how we can help?