Email Best Practices

Thursday, November 15th, 2012 | Microsoft Office 2010, Outlook 2010 | Mike Smith

The most under-utilized feature of most software is their built-in Help function.  In the old days, you needed to be an engineer to even understand what the author was writing, but as technical writing has improved, the Help function is more user-friendly than ever.
If you want to know how a feature works or what a button does, when you hover over it in Outlook 2010 you will see a dialog that says “Press F1 for more Help.”  Pressing this will launch the generic Outlook Help where you can view getting started guide or simply search on the function you need more information on.
Typically searching the Outlook Help will be faster than asking someone else or searching on the internet for an answer.  It will also show you how to accomplish your task or find the buttons you are looking for with screenshots.

Microsoft is constantly (once per month) updating their software.  Many of these updates resolve issues that most users never experience, but many times they also improve security, add functionality, increase reliability, or improve performance.  Since most users are not allowed to install their own updates, ensure your software is staying up to date based on firm policies or by checking with your IT Department.

Outlook has many time-saving keyboard shortcuts that can increase the speed users can send, reply, and work emails.  Many of these have been the same since previous versions and still work in the current release.  Hovering over a key in the Outlook Toolbar will show you that functions keyboard shortcut if available.  Here is a short list of some useful keyboard shortcuts:
Switch to Mail – CTRL+1
Switch to Calendar – CTRL+2
Switch to Contacts – CTRL+3
Send current message – ALT+S
Reply to a message – CTRL+R
Reply all to a message – CTRL+SHIFT+R
Reply with meeting request – CTRL+ALT+R
Forward a message – CTRL+F

One of the most important pieces of email best practices is how you manage your inbox.  There is no “correct” answer on how to manage your inbox; it really depends on how you, your group, or your company uses email. There are some general guidelines that can help you manage your messages so you can find items faster, keep your Outlook response time quick, and reduce the stress of being overwhelmed with email.  The most important aspect to remember in regards to your email experience is:  The smaller your mailbox, the faster/more reliable your email experience will be.
Think of your inbox like your desktop or the entry way to your house: temporary space.  It is where you would leave items to be sorted and processed, like dropping the bags from a shopping trip before unpacking the items.  Create relevant folders to file your messages, or even sub folders.  You can later use these in conjunction with Outlook rules or other Outlook integrations such as document management systems.
When using Worksite with Outlook, you have the ability to link folders in your mailbox to filing folders in a workspace.  This means that when you move an email message there, it will automatically be filed in the DMS (document management system).  Beyond that, there is an option to automatically delete the message once it has been filed,
Scheduling time to process emails will allow you uninterrupted time to focus on the task at hand.  In the age of connected 24/7/365, we are constantly distracted by little pings, beeps, and alarms.  If you schedule set times throughout the day to read, sort, and process your emails only, you will find that the task takes much less time and allows you to be more productive throughout the day.
When processing emails as stated above, use the “The Two-Minute Rule.”  If it takes longer than 2 minutes to process (respond or take action) on an email, flag/classify/calendar it for after your email processing time window.
There are many different ways to classify emails, and many functions are built into Outlook to assist you with this.  One way of classifying emails is to put them in folders as explained above.  Another way is to use the “flag for follow-up” on an item.  This can be an added column to your view, accessed from the Outlook “Home” tab, or by right-clicking a message.  Flagging an email could mean that it requires an action on your part; once that action is complete, you can remove the flag.  Another option is to use “categories” in Outlook.  The default listing of categories is shown below, but can be customized.  You can then view your inbox or other folders based on categories.  You can also use rules in conjunction with categories to automatically categorize emails based on subject contents or sender address.

Keeping your mailbox (your inbox, sent items, deleted items, and any other folders in your account) to a small size will DRASTICALLY increase your Outlook performance.  By right-clicking on a folder, going to properties, then clicking “folder size” you can see how much space your folders (and subfolders) are taking up.  The size here has 2 parts: the first is the actual size of the folder in bytes, and the second is the number of items contained in that folder.  Both play an equal part in contributing to Outlook “slowness” or “unresponsiveness.”

Imagine if you need to find something in a file with 1000 pieces of paper in it and they were all stored in one folder.  It would be difficult to flip through those pages to find what you are looking for.  Now imagine if that same file was broken into sections, and each section had its own folder.  It would be easier (and faster) to locate what you need based on the section.  The same applies for Outlook every time you open or view a folder, it needs to “open” all those individual files (emails) to display their contents to list to you.  Your folders will feel much more responsive if they have fewer emails in them.
Keeping your mailbox size down also means deleting large email messages, usually the ones that contain big attachments, pictures, or other items.  Outlook 2010 has a handy built-in search button to find “large mail” and sort it by size.  This will allow you to process those large messages first and make the most impact on your mailbox size.  You can create new search folders by right-clicking on the “Search Folders” and selecting a new search folder:

The default view for Outlook is just that: the default.  It was designed to be the most generic view Outlook has.  The “Manage Views” section from the Outlook 2010 “View” tab allows you to customize the views in Outlook by changing default sort orders, message colors, columns, etc. as the choices are near limitless.  Once you have created the view that works best for you, be sure to save it.

Outlook 2010 has two features to help automate repetitive tasks.  The first feature has been in many previous versions and allows you to automatically do a task based on conditions, and this is called a Rule.  The second is new and is called a Quick Step.  A Quick Step can be a series of tasks assigned to a “button” in the Home tab that executes when pressed.  Rules happen automatically, and Quick Steps happen when you press the button.
To create a rule, select “Rules” from the Home tab then “Manage Rules and Alerts.”  From this menu you can create custom rules based on various criteria.  Another method to create a rule is when an email is selected.  This will auto-populate various criteria of the rules based on that message to make the creation easier.

Quick Steps happen on demand when a user clicks on the link for that series of actions.  They can also be found on the Home tab near Rules.  As you can see in the example below, you can add multiple actions to one Quick Step:

Email was not originally designed to send documents and attachments.  It was originally designed to send a message much like a postcard.  Similar to a postcard passing through many different post offices to reach its destination, your email will be relayed to different servers across the internet before it reaches its destination.  Through that process it may pass through different scanning utilities which may or may not filter it out based on different rules.  Here are some thoughts when sending attachments:
SIZE:  The email attachments should not total more than 3mb – 5mb to ensure they reach their destination.  Remember that size does not correlate with number of pages or number of attachments.  If it is much larger, consider sending it in parts or contacting the recipient for different options to send, or compress/zip the attachments prior to sending.

PASSWORD PROTECTED:  If you are sending a document with a password or a ZIP file that is password protected, some email scanners will reject this since it could be a virus but they cannot determine the contents.

RECEIVED ATTACHMENTS:  Since attachments you receive can be large, it’s best to save emails/attachments outside of your mailbox so you can then delete them to keep your mailbox size down.

SENDING ATTACHMENTS:  Whenever an urgent email or an email with an attachment is sent, it’s always good to send a second e-mail without an attachment alerting the sender that an email with an attachment was just sent.  The reason behind this is you or the recipient may not always be notified that your email or attachment was blocked, and you should not assume that all attachments are always received.

ATTACHMENTS AND FILESITE:  If you are working on a document that exists in a workspace, there is a very convenient way to send a link to the document without actually sending the whole document.  This ensures that your email is small in size since the link takes no space.  The recipient will open the document from the workspace so any changes they make are automatically saved there, and you are ensuring that no one needs to search for emails to find the latest version of that document.

When sending or replying to an email, make sure to use the various recipient fields correctly.  When sending an email, try to only send the email to the people who need it as to not create extra copies of the email in everyone’s mailboxes.
TO:  This field is for recipients whom you would expect a response from or who are the primary users of the email information.
CC:  The CC line should be used for people who should see the email, but not necessarily have to respond.
BCC:  Since a BCC only works on that particular email, it is to be used to show someone your email without all the To/CC recipients seeing that the BCC person received the email as well.  Generally bcc’s are a bad idea as the recipient can forward on to other individuals – unaware that they were not publicly included on the original message.  When this happens, it’s ultimately embarrassing to the original sender.  It’s always better to forward a copy of the original sent message to an additional recipient(s).
REPLY-ALL:  Make sure you use this function when all the people on the original email need to see your response.  If only the sender does, use Reply instead.

In conjunction with the Managing Your Inbox section above, turning off the email notifications can allow you to focus on your current task and check your email once it is completed.  The various email notifications can include a sound, a pop-up, or an icon in your task bar.  To disable these, open the Outlook options, then navigate to the Mail section and scroll to find Message Arrival:

Considering the contents and importance of your message, email may not be the best method of communication.  Email has become the default go-to method for most business and day-to-day communication while most users are not aware of the footprint that comes with each email.  Firms can create policies that limit the size of your mailbox to a set amount, and some of you may have received the messages saying “your email box is too large” and possibly just ignored them.  The most important factor when sending an email is the time sensitivity of your contents.  If you do not need immediate action or someone is not depending on that information right away, email may be the best option.
Other options besides email:
Corporate Instant Messaging – There are many “grown-up” instant messaging platforms available such as Microsoft Communicator or Skype.  These can replace those short emails; and since they can be configured to not be stored in a database, could be used in place of those “are you in the office?” or “want to go to lunch?” emails.

Phone Call – If your information is very time sensitive, perhaps a quick phone call will be the best way to connect.  Even a phone call to let someone know to expect an urgent email attachment can be very helpful.

Email is NOT a secure form of communication.  If you need to communicate confidential or private information, there are many ways to secure the info prior to sending.  There are ways to encrypt or password protect files prior to sending, or other sending means that do not involve email.  Remember: do not send confidential (bank account numbers, social security numbers, credit card information, birthdates, etc.) via electronic mail.

Writing meaningful emails can ensure the required information or actions are conveyed in a timely fashion.  This can be a combination of factors such as timing, message subject, and message contents.
TIMING:  Make sure you send your email at an appropriate time.  If it’s urgent and you send it at 7pm, it may be beneficial to follow up with a phone call or send at a different time.
SUBJECT LINE:  The subject line can be the most important part of the email.  A meaningful, descriptive, and brief subject line can help the recipient determine and prioritize the contents.  For example, a good subject would be “Client XYZ needs attached documents signed and sent by today” as opposed to “please sign attached.”
CONTENTS:  If your email is requesting an action/response, always put this information into the first sentence in the body of the email, and any supporting information should follow.

Consistent branding is important to every business.  Having consistent branding means your company’s colors, logos, and styles are consistent across all of the media.  One very important and often overlooked part of this is email signatures.  A company would not let all their employees design their own business cards, so why let users create their own signatures?

Signatures can show up on new email messages as well as replies.  With that in mind, it is important to develop an email signature that conveys the needed information in a clear, concise, and compact manner.  Some important pieces of information that could be placed in your signature include:
Company address and phone number
Personal number and/or desk number
Normal working hours or time zone (for larger companies)
Email disclaimer (as needed)

With the increased number of smart devices, it seems as if you cannot purchase something that doesn’t receive email!  With that in mind, consider your email length, format, and attachments when sending to recipients as they may be viewing that on a phone, a laptop, a tablet, or who knows maybe even a microwave!

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