e other day I received an e-mail peppered with phrases such as "as you stated in December" and "according to our agreement." The salutation was "please respond."
Though I have a great relationship with the sender and the e-mail's purpose was to gain consensus, the words and tone of the communication were not conducive to teamwork.
A few days later, an e-mail from someone else fell at the other end of the spectrum. Even though it was full of good cheer, the message didn't have enough structure or information for my team to react and move forward. We had to ask for clarification on requests and next steps.
Both senders suffer from the same ailment: a lack of knowledge for how best to use e-mail. E-mails straddle the line between business letters and reminders jotted on sticky notes. They should be structured enough so that the recipient can understand the message and respond, but casual enough to fit the medium. Someday, e-mail communications are likely to be subject to the same guidelines as business letters are today. Until then, use the tips below to ensure that your e-mails are effective and appropriate.
-Provide context. Many people work on numerous projects at once and may, therefore, need a reminder of the relevance of e-mailed information. Provide background information such as the project name, the reason for the message and a description of any documents you attach.
For example, you might begin your message with "Attached are notes outlining our Acme project kickoff meeting last week. They include the ideas we added after the group adjourned Tuesday."
-Include a call to action. Clearly state the required action and deadline. For instance, if you need input from the recipient, end with something like "Please use boldface to add your ideas to the attached document and return it by end of business on Tuesday." This is more effective than a simple request for feedback. If no input is required, let recipients know that the information is just for their files.
-Include contact information. Many business people look for this information at the end of an e-mail. Most e-mail programs allow you to attach a "signature file" automatically at the end of your messages. Set it up to include your phone and fax numbers, mailing address and Web site URL. Every time you send a message, this information will be included.
-Say hello and goodbye. Sending your friends notes without a salutation and signature might be OK, but in my opinion, business correspondence should start and end with an acknowledgement, which could be as simple as "Hi Sam" or "Sam-."
The words you use to sign off should reflect your relationship with the recipient. For instance, when communicating with a client, "Best regards" may be more appropriate than "Cheers."
-Empathize. Phrases that let the recipient know you understand his or her point of view go a long way toward building cooperation and trust. For example, to introduce your recommendations, begin with "I understand your goals and recommend that we " or "Based on the priorities you outlined for us, the next item we address will be "
-Avoid excessive formality. In general, e-mails are a more casual form of communication than other written documents. If you make them too stiff or proper, you run the risk of causing a reaction like the one I described above. Some occasions may require a formal e-mail, but as a general rule, try to achieve a conversational tone in your messages.
Reinventing Your Workspace
For the past year, my office and the company conference table have been in the same room.
This setup was fine when my business was small enough that I attended all meetings, but as we've grown, the arrangement has become inconvenient because I can't work while a meeting is in progress. The solution is to create a new workspace for me, built in a corner of our loft office.
Now I am presented with the opportunity or challenge, depending on how you look at it of re-establishing my office.
-Keep key materials nearby. Minimizing workspace clutter is a basic tenet of office organization, but I like having important items within reach. A few things that I use regularly merit prime desk real estate, including the Zagat's restaurant guide, which I use to find spots for client lunches and dinners, and a dictionary.
-Don't work in a china shop. Avoid setting up precariously balanced items in your workspace. Common culprits include books acting as bookends, which can create a domino effect when you remove them, items in the line of the phone cord such as picture frames, and files that slide to one side, creating a paper avalanche.
-Keep an eye toward injury prevention. Design your workspace to avoid common health risks. You need ambient light for your office and a task light for your desk. Neither of these lights should reflect off of your computer screen.
Other basics include a chair that adjusts three ways and a keyboard arrangement that enables you to work with your wrists flat and your elbows by your sides.
-Have sufficient filing space. Overstuffed file cabinets are among the most frustrating office transgression. Avoid this aggravation by buying plenty of file cabinets and shelving to hold your business materials.
-Throw stuff away. Use your reorganization as an excuse to get rid of old paperwork.
Some people are afraid to throw anything out for fear an important document will be discarded. If this describes you, create a "safety" trashcan for papers that can be discarded a month after your move is complete. If you haven't missed the papers by then, chances are you can safely discard them.
Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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