A different kind of email policy

A mobile phone email inbox showing one new message

As someone who has been involved in policy work for a good while, I remember the days when creating an email policy was a big deal. It had the same level of focus that social media policies get today.  I’m sure that when workplaces first introduced desk phones we felt the need to tell people how to use them too. We created rules and processes.  Management guidance and lists of dos and don’ts. 

Eventually, these things become so part of the everyday (or even passé) that the need for a policy wanes.  I reckon there are plenty of email policies out there though, all the same.

Recently, someone in my Twitter timeline talked about the need for a different type of email policy – a healthy email policy.  

Email as a bad reputation.  We know that it can be a problem. Not the tool itself but how, and often when, it is used. There are many organisations where the email culture isn’t healthy at all. Competitive late night emailing. Expectation of immediate responses.  Meaningless out of office messages, because employees feel like they can never really switch off.  The passive aggressive cc.  The ‘confirming our discussion’ type.  And so on.

Of course, it’s not just unhealthy organisational habits, but personal ones too. We jump to the inbox ping, an ingrained Pavlovian response. Our emails are often in our pockets or on our smart watches, following us everywhere, quietly nagging us for a response.  And we do.

So just what could a healthy email policy look like? For some organisations it means banning emails ‘out of hours’ or automatically deleting emails when people are on holiday.  Both of these feel a little too much like treating employees like children who can’t manage their own workloads.  It also risks enforcing the idea that there is any such thing as a ‘normal’ working day.

Instead, a healthy email culture is one where someone does not feel like they have to respond immediately or be thought of as less committed or motivated. Where you can put an out of office on and mean it.  Where, if someone wants to work late at nights or weekend, they do so in a way that doesn’t role model unhealthy or unhelpful habits (just put them in your drafts folks and send them in the morning or let people know that it’s because you work flexibly).  It also means an email culture where sometimes we don’t send one at all and just get up and have a conversation instead. 

Do we need a healthy email policy?  In an ideal world – no. Or at least we shouldn’t, in an adult to adult working environment. Instead, we need to start with ourselves by creating our own healthy email habits – and challenging the unhealthy ones we see from our colleagues too, along the way.  Maybe what we need instead of yet another policy is a reminder that when it comes email (and indeed pretty much everything else) we need to work with both wellbeing and colleagues in mind.