Take control of your email

5th March 2015

How quickly does the unread messages counter on your email app icon go up? How many messages hide in your inbox, only discovered months after their usefulness has passed.

Dealing with a never-ending influx of business emails is a well-know headache in organisations, and can rapidly become a drain on people's times and efficiency. Every minute spent sifting for the right email is a minute not replying to important messages or completing other work.

Owning the inbox

Controlling the flow of email helps everyone communicate more effectively. These tips will help to improve your organisation's email working patterns. Not all the suggestions are suitable for every company, but all businesses can benefit from some of the advice.

Boost spam filtering

Once an email address is online, such as on your business website, it becomes a target for spammers. To prevent inboxes becoming clogged with unwanted messages boost the power of your spam filters.

Microsoft Office 365 users already have the high-quality spam filtering built-in, and organisations using other platforms can utilise third-party filtering services to reduce the level of spam reaching the inbox.

Inbox rules

If your inbox is the landing point for copies of customer orders, or other standardised messages, then setting mailbox rules will automatically shuffle them off to another folder. Microsoft Exchange users can have rules working only in Outlook (so mobile devices still have the messages going to the inbox) or on the mail server (so every device has the inbox rules applied).

If you regularly sweep groups of messages into folders then rules are a great way of maintaining inbox order.

Set priorities

Not every email is equal, and users need to decide in which order to action items. Common examples include answering a query from a key customer before a general sales email, or sending emails based on project completion dates - with the most pressing ones first.

Most email services include ways of flagging messages to highlight important ones. Some, like Microsoft Exchange, go further and give users the options to create tasks, and set deadlines, for when to respond by. Exchange customers have another benefit as using mailbox rules it's possible to automate priority setting; with flags added to emails from particular senders automatically.

Setting priorities gives focus to workflows. Making sure essential items are dealt with first. Otherwise everything looks just as important as everything else - which is rarely the case.

Respond quickly

An email arrives in your inbox so you switch to Outlook (or preferred email app) to see what the message is. Next, ask yourself a question. Do you need to reply? If so, how quickly?

If the answers are 'Yes' and 'About 30 seconds' then press reply and send the response. Once that's done remove the original email from your inbox and carry on with your business.

Don't leave things in the inbox

The inbox is an easy place to store emails. Items you've read and may need to respond to at some point, but not yet, or should probably be able to lay your hand on at some unspecified future point.

The problem is, keeping these old messages around turns your inbox into a dumping ground and makes it harder to find the really important items. If you need to keep emails hanging around then create a 'temp' folder and stash them away. Your inbox stays open for new messages and everything else is just a click away.

Stop emailing people

The tips so far have demonstrated how to remove clutter. Remember though, every email you send is potential clutter to someone else.

Before composing a message consider if a) you need to email the person at all and b) if another contact method, such as a phone call or instant message, is a better way of responding.

In a similar vein, think twice before hitting 'reply all' as part of an email chain. Any conversation conducted with several people simultaneously is almost always better handled off email and in a meeting (whether that's a face-to-face meeting or a virtual one).

Turn off your email

The final tip is about forgetting your emails all together. Being able to sync messages across devices makes many users see business email as a 24 x 7 concern. It isn't though and resisting the temptation to tap the mail icon at weekends has benefits..

If you don't read an email you can't reply. And if you can't reply then you can't receive more messages based on your response. Email volumes drop, people spend more time with families and less time staring at a mobile screen.

Conclusion

Within business email is one of the main ways to communicate and owning the inbox makes you a more productive communicator. Achieving Inbox Zero is pipe-dream in most cases (and probably not something to aim for anyway) but keeping the inbox under control is an achievable goal and one all business email users should strive for.

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