How to use email effectively

How to use e-mail effectively

By Nathalie Towner

More and more people in social care are using e-mail. It is
impossible to ignore this phenomenon: e-mail has completely changed
workplace communication. It is a powerful and useful tool but is
also open to misuse, so it’s worth setting a few ground

1 How useful?

“E-mail is essential,” says Fiona Harris, service
manager, safeguards unit for children and young people at Essex
Council. “It is the most common form of communication,
particularly internally.” She says it is very useful for
circulating information at speed.  “You can consult quickly,
record feedback in a simple way and communicate with someone when
you or they are ready to look at the e-mail.”

2 Too much e-mail?

However e-mail can waste time as well as save it. “Much
e-mail traffic is unnecessary,” says Robert Ashton, director
of Emphasis Training, a business writing consultancy that gives
best practice advice on e-mail.  “Many people e-mail
colleagues when it would be easier to pick up the phone or walk to
their desk.” He says the number of e-mails could be halved if
people only received messages that were essential to their work. 
“Often people copy messages as a security blanket.”
Ashton explains. “Yet that negates the whole point of each
team member having their own responsibilities and it’s
terribly inefficient as everyone has to read it.”

3 Confidentiality

Social workers need to be particularly vigilant about the threat of
e-mail security breaches. “We deal with offenders so we have
very secure systems,” says Harris. She advises password
protecting any client information sent by e-mail and calling the
recipient to tell them how to access it. “Also don’t
use names in the header box, instead use initials and flag it up as
a confidential e-mail.”

4 Watch your writing style

“People tend to write e-mails in the same way they speak on
the phone and this can come across as overly informal,” says
Ashton. “Remember, the person you’re writing to
won’t be able to hear your tone.” Harris adds that as a
rule of thumb it’s always wise to use a formal tone when
discussing clients. “Always be professional and separate fact
from opinion.”

5 Respond quickly

Ashton says it’s good practice to send someone a holding
reply if you can’t give them a full response immediately,
just so they know their query is being dealt with. Harris agrees
and also recommends using an out of office reply if you’re
not around and telling the sender when you’ll be back and who
they can contact in your absence. “We also have delegate
rights so someone else can access e-mails if a member of staff is
off sick or on holiday,” she says.

6 When not to use e-mail

“E-mail is not ideal for delicate or complex issues,”
says Harris. “If it involves negotiation or is a sensitive
topic then you should speak to someone face-to-face.” There
are also many instances of people firing off e-mail responses in
anger and then having to live with the consequences. “Think
about why you’re sending the e-mail – it is a
professional conversation and there will be a record of what you
have sent.” Harris recommends not responding instantly, so
you have a chance to think and always reading carefully what you
are about to send.

7 Use it wisely

It is always worth remembering that unlike phone calls (unless you
record them, which most people don’t) e-mails can be kept as
a permanent record. E-mail can also isolate people. If you use it
all the time you risk losing touch with those around you.  But used
wisely it is an incredibly sophisticated and time-saving tool.  As
Harris says: “I wouldn’t be without it.”

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