Last edited 12 Feb 2021

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The Institution of Civil Engineers Institute / association Website

Unnecessary emails

[edit] A conversation a day can save 81,000 flights worth of carbon - and improve our wellbeing.

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Following recent research which showed that unnecessary emails are contributing to the climate emergency, ICE member Penny Gilg thinks there could be other benefits to reducing the number of emails we send.

According to new research (November 2019), if each UK adult sent one less email a day, we would save over 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year - the same as 81,152 flights to Madrid.

There’s no denying that emails can be very helpful, they allow people to work flexibly and help teams to collaborate across time zones. But in light of this research can cutting down the amount of emails we send also improve our wellbeing at the same time?

I remember a few months out of university comparing new jobs with friends. Despite us all entering different industries and taking up various positions we all concluded our jobs were very similar – reading and answering emails! Email clients such as Outlook have become a staple of our working day – emails have become the first thing we look at in the morning, popping up in the bottom corner of our screen regularly, and the thing we dread after a week out of the office.

Many people regard their inbox as a to-do list. But due to the increasing habit of copying in several team members or writing an email "whilst you remember" these inbox to-do lists are growing ever larger and less manageable. This leads to skim reading mail, hurried replies, or messages being missed. We're all taught that to be a good communicator you need to ensure that the message you are conveying can be repeated back to you. But our current email culture doesn’t allow this feedback loop.

To ensure good project or team communications I'd advocate regular catch ups, face-to-face if possible. All questions, comments and updates can be saved until then and discussed. Discussions held in person offer cues - facial expressions, body language and tone of voice allow us to interpret whether our messages have been understood and allow us the opportunity to discuss any points of clarification or questions.

So much of this nuance is lost in emails, that questions are often misunderstood, leading to lengthy tangents and ultimately, still unanswered or unclarified questions.

In the spirt of new year’s resolutions, I’ve thought of 10 tips to help reduce emails, our carbon footprint and our team’s stress levels.

  • Manage your emails, don’t let them manage you. Turn off the instant alerts and only check emails when you want to. This helps you concentrate on the task in hand, leading to faster and higher quality work.

When sending emails

  • Ask yourself “is the recipient in the same building as me?” If the answer is “yes” then go and see them in person!
  • Ask yourself “Can this question wait until I am are next due to see/talk to someone?” If it can, make a note of it and discuss it when you see them.
  • If it’s urgent – try picking up the phone instead. Discuss the issue with them – you’ll probably arrive at a better resolution – it’s quicker than relying on email ping-pong.

But if you must email…

  • Control your cc’ing urges. Does everyone need to be included into the whole email chain, or only made aware of the conclusion?
  • Don’t reply in haste, read and re-read the email. Make sure you understand the question before starting your response.
  • Hold fire! You don’t have to press send immediately – chances are you’ll think of another point you could have made when you are on your way to the coffee pod.

And as a team:

  • Discuss your expectations – how quickly do you expect the emails you send to be read and actioned? A day? An hour?
  • And how quickly do you aim to reply to emails you receive? 2 days? Within a week? When planning your day, how much time do you set aside for this?

As a business:

  • Open plan offices have been found to stifle conversations as people fear being overheard and sounding ‘silly’ – this drives people to email and loses the benefit of co-located working. By providing quiet areas for quick chats, more chats and less email will be encouraged.

This article was originally published by ICE as 'A conversation a day can save 81,000 flights worth of carbon - and improve our wellbeing' on 10 December 2019. It was written by ICE member Penny Gilg. You can find the original on ICE's Community Blog.

--The Institution of Civil Engineers

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