7 tips for improving workplace email culture

woman using email on laptop
belinda jennings

Belinda Jennings

Belinda is Managing Director at Evolve, and is passionate about brand engagement through customer voice, and employee enablement.

Email is ubiquitous in the workplace for good reason. It’s convenient when the phone isn’t. It’s accessible, searchable and ideal for documenting important communication. But it’s not all rosy. After all, if you commit an email faux pas, it can have a toxic effect on your brand. And it certainly happens. Just ask Hillary Clinton.


It helps explain why many employees experience trepidation when it’s time to hit Send. Maybe you’ve agonised over whether the high stakes email you’ve just composed is impactful enough? Is the tone appropriate? Is the message too long? Or perhaps that emoji is one judgement lapse too many.


Employees are rightly feeling this way… intuition trumps paranoia!

 

The data.

We’re on the cusp of collecting our 2 millionth employee feedback survey across a handful of Australia’s biggest brands. A text analytics deep dive into ‘email’ across those projects more recently reveals just how much of a pain point it can be. When mentioned in relation to workplace engagement, for every positive mention, there are ten times as many of negative mentions. This presents a huge opportunity to improve the health of your organisational culture, cost free and with relative ease to implement.


Best-practice email etiquette isn’t an innate characteristic of the workforce. Let’s face it, arming an untrained employee with an email account isn’t entirely dissimilar from giving a teenager on L plates the keys to your car. Safeguards in these scenarios are imperative. When I was in my first grad role, there were none to speak of. I received my account. I heeded the company’s message that the account was work purposes only and was told who in IT to contact in the event Outlook froze. I can now appreciate how vital it is to ensure your employees are all up to speed on healthy email behaviour.


If you’re wondering what impact you have on your workplaces’ email culture, here are some issues it can be helpful to consider.

 

Timing matters.

France has gone as far as denormalising around-the-clock email culture by legislating bans on a lot of after-hours activity. When it comes to timing your emails, it’s always a good idea to remember the following:

  • Yes, email is conveniently always-on but when I receive a work email after hours, I’m often inclined to question the sender’s time management and consideration for appropriate professional boundaries. Maybe an after-9pm email is testament to the sender’s inscrutable work ethic; or maybe it works for them, but it’s nevertheless important to remember the impression it makes when you send work emails at graveyard hours. Not to mention the adverse impact it can have on the quality of your communication.
  • The main reason I’m averse to nocturnal emails, however, is that this is when my inbox floods with eDMs, subscription emails and automated process reports and notifications. Any email I receive in those hours drop to the bottom of my inbox and my priority gravitates to the ones that arrive early. These cut through when I’m lit with enough caffeine to take on Everest.
  • If you do find yourself composing an email after midnight, make the most of automated email scheduling. Even better, review with fresh eyes in the morning and send while the recipient is ready to take it on. Time it with impact to strike while the iron is hot.

Subject line.

Email subject lines can have a significant impact on business efficiency. I recently came across a stat that said that 35 percent of email recipients open emails based on the subject line alone. Some points to consider for subject lines that cut through:

  • Keep it short, specific and meaningful.
  • Ensure the subject line is highly relevant to the email content. If the content has moved away from the subject line, update it.
  • Use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling.
  • Always capitalise the first letter. Never capitalise the full line.
  • Use searchable keywords.
  • Give a call to action (“Seeking your feedback on Project X.”).

Whether you want to enhance the visibility of your email subject line, pique your recipient’s interest enough that they open it, prompt a quick reply or sustain a smooth exchange, demonstrating good subject line etiquette helps employees keep working relationships healthy.

 

Email signature.

Email signatures are an extension of your brand, and it is important to include one. Your organisation will have a template…don’t stray from the design. The template should include your name, position, business street address and phone contact details (at a minimum). If it’s relevant to include links to the website, company logo and photos, do so, but keep in mind the email signature should not be longer than 3-4 lines. Remember too, links and images may not render properly across all devices and browsers, so best to err on the side of caution. What looks beautifully crafted on your PC version of Outlook can quickly turn to a hot cluttered mess on a mobile browser.

 

Group emails.

With all those voices crowing about different things all at once, group emails can quickly descend into chaos.
Resist the urge to address your email with, ‘Hi all.’ It’s the quickest way to ensure your email achieves breadth, without the depth. If there are specific actions for individuals, spare everybody some serious headaches by individually addressing the relevant individuals throughout the email. Even better, keep the group email with high-level context and actions, and work through detailed requirements face-to-face individually.


Refrain from referring to ‘the other email’ or ‘the attachment I sent yesterday’. Save everyone the inconvenience and reattach it. The efficiencies gained will be worth the extra 20 seconds, I promise!

 

BCC

This one is easy. Generally, don’t use it. It will likely come back to bite you! BCC is only really useful if you are emailing a group of individuals who are strangers and you have no intention of introducing them to one another.

 

Long emails.

Email is the preferred communication method in many workplace scenarios because of the time and energy it saves. But that’s all on the proviso it’s done well. To ensure it is, structure it carefully. For high priority emails especially, edit, proof, edit and proof again.
How long should an email be? If 10 words suffices, definitely 10 words.


To save everybody time and energy, the objective of your email should be clear at the outset. It should be organised into bullet points (if it’s on the longer side), formatted, headered and sign-posted too.


If you feel like you are exceeding the ideal length, you probably are. Try a phone call or face-to-face introduction before sending the detail.


Also, consider your recipient or audience. How important is this email to them? Is the email unnecessarily complicated?

 

Out of Office (OOO).

When composing the annual OOO email, minimise inconvenience for the recipient. Announcing you’re away sipping cocktails at the swim up bar for the next few weeks is always a great OOO email to avoid composing. The date you are back is significantly more interesting to the recipient than the dates you are away. If you can be contacted during this period, provide details about your phone and email availability.


Ensure your recipients know who has been briefed on their project in your absence. More importantly, clearly outline how they can be reached. Ideally, include their email signature.


Email is an indispensable communication tool, but the value it has on your workplace culture depends on how effective you are at using it. We know that it has the potential to irritate ten times as many colleagues as it will delight, but equally is something you can address quickly, and implement with ease.

Active Listening – taking action on employee feedback

3 co-workers with woman taking notes
alex kokshoorn

Alex Kokshoorn

Alex is Group General Manager, and passionate about working with people and technology to inspire positive change.

While company assets are often defined as the ‘four Ps’ – product, place, promotion and price – the fifth P – people – is perhaps the most critical in terms of their ability to ‘make or break’ an organisation (McEwen, 2001). As we have seen time and time again, the success of a company is directly linked to the satisfaction of employees who embody that company, with the ability to retain talented people critical to the success of a company, regardless of the economic climate (Freeman, 2005). Asking for feedback and ensuring employees feel heard is an important part of maintaining a productive working culture. As important, but an aspect that sometimes gets missed, is taking action on this feedback to make a quantifiable difference to employee experience. This blog will explore an original and innovative process of collecting employee feedback, as well as some of the potential benefits of using chatbot technology to probe and explore employee experiences in more detail.

 

The process of getting employee feedback about important aspects of their work life, such as communication, colleagues, pay and the general office environment is complex.

 

First, it is necessary to capture the right data, by asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time. One issue that often arises in these kinds of assessments is the closed nature of responses – by asking questions such as ‘please rate the quality of leadership in our organisation from 1-5’ means we can miss out on the nuance of employee experiences with leadership, or their perception of how leaders are doing. Closed and quantitative questions are useful, but we can often end up finding what we were looking for – rather than exploring what is actually there.

 

Open ended responses can reveal a deeper insight into organisational issues than categorical responses and it is only in the last few years that we have the technology to synthesise this information quickly and translate it into something actionable.

 

The Evolved Group has developed a new survey companion, the Evolved Voice Engine, or Eve, so people can say what is important to them in their own words. Eve asks follow up questions based on what people are saying and these conversations are auto-classified into defined topics of interest using the Focus Words application. Topic definitions can be updated over time to reflect new themes relating to the employee experience. Again, this kind of analysis – exploratory rather than confirmatory – is a powerful tool in understanding complex areas such as Employee Engagement.

active listening

But what should we focus on?

By overlaying an employee’s ‘overall satisfaction’ or ‘likelihood to recommend the company as a place to work’, the Focus Words application can classify topics into areas you should:

  • ‘Celebrate’ – those having a high positive impact and experienced by many
  • ‘Elevate’ – have a high positive impact but only experienced by a minority
  • ‘Fix now’ – have a high negative impact and experienced by many
  • ‘Fix next’ – have a high negative impact but not a systemic issue

As per the example below, these topics can be visualised in impact matrices for both the positive and negative drivers of employee experiences.

Characteristic of this type of assessment is that it highlights how topics can be highly polarized at times (driving both positive and negative sentiment) or have little to no impact on sentiment. For example, career development may be a category having both positive and negative sentiments – while an area such as office equipment may be less controversial.

What next?

We now have an effective and reliable way of measuring employee experiences by listening to them in their own words. That is great – but it only takes us so far. The next step is to take action on the priority areas highlighted and to track progress towards those outcomes. If we identified Leadership or Communication as areas of focus, we should then outline a plan to address those concerns.

This involves reaching out to the right people in the business, agreeing on the specific tasks that need to be completed, and committing to dates. Some of the questions that might be asked are – how should we assess the impact of each intervention? What is currently problematic about, for example, communication, and what have employees conveyed to us about this? Who are the exemplars in our organisation and what can we learn from them?

 

Each organisation will have its own unique profile of areas to focus on, but it is clear that by tapping into what employees are thinking organisations can focus on the things that matter most when it comes to employee engagement. How does your organisation currently listen to its employees? What are some areas you are interested in exploring, in terms of your company culture or employee engagement? Please feel free to leave your comments below.

Tell me how you really feel – AI and employee feedback

tristan pokornyi

Tristan Pokornyi

Tristan is a tech-minded Research Assistant at Evolve with a passion for adventure, photography and psychology.

A look at AI today

Not very long ago, in my student days, there was one particular activity each semester that I didn’t really look forward to. The drawn-out student evaluation survey. It would have been very nice to have something more interactive, fun and high tech that maybe makes use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The other problem was I often felt like no actions were taken in regards to my surveys, or at the very least I didn’t know if anything was done.

 

With every year, it seems like AI is taking a bigger and more sophisticated role in our lives – including our working lives. It has made its way into the realm of employee feedback, where high-tech, AI-backed solutions are essential to understanding exactly what employees think. These solutions are more efficient than traditional methods such as onerous annual employee engagement surveys and allow for continuous feedback collection and action in real-time. Feeling like I am well listened to will definitely make me more likely to stay at a company.

 

In addition, these more traditional employee surveying methods undoubtedly mean thousands of sentences of text to analyse, and that doesn’t even include the quantitative scores. The most meaningful employee feedback is qualitative, especially when it comes to feelings expressed about something specific, or suggestions on something which could be done better. Technology that processes these answers efficiently is highly in demand.

 

Recently, machine learning and natural language processing AI systems have been on the rise. The basic premise behind these algorithms is that they are able to extract the critical data from open-ended questions, identify patterns and use keywords to figure out the sentiment of the respondent. They have big implications because they are able to do this for very large datasets. This is also known as text analytics, or ‘text mining’ and will be discussed further on in more detail.

 

Chatbots and employee feedback

Meanwhile, a wide variety of companies have utilised chatbots, primarily to make customer service more efficient, and allow for the quick answering of the most important or frequent questions. A chatbot is a computer program that automatically answers questions and ‘makes conversation’. It can take use of several mediums, such as websites, SMS, social media and spoken language. One way of designing a chatbot is to encode as much data as possible into it, so that it effectively cannot be discerned from a person sitting behind a computer. Another is choosing a selected handful of questions that can be answered by the bot. Chatbots generally have a given purpose or topic that they can ‘talk about’ – something to do with the company or person’s operations, therefore the second design described above is usually more practical. For example, Apple has the well known chatbot Siri, who serves as a virtual assistant. I’ve seen and interacted with many chatbots on e-commerce and webstores, but have not seen them too often for other services – though I believe they could be quite helpful.

 

One such service chatbots could help me (and like-minded millennials) with is employee feedback. As I mentioned before, technology like this would make the whole process of giving feedback much more engaging. For this purpose, chatbots could be used to capture feedback more naturally and conversationally, allowing people to say what’s important in their own words. The Evolved Group, via the PeopleListeningTM platform, has developed a chatbot, named EVE, to be one’s ‘feedback companion’ at work. The idea behind EVE is to combine the functions of a two-way conversational chatbot and a text-analysing AI tool.  EVE employs machine learning to recognise what employees want to talk about and then asks relevant questions. As such, allowing employees to give meaningful insights in their own words is key.

While EVE sits on the side of someone’s screen making work-related conversation at timely intervals, the answers are analysed with a process called ‘text mining’. This can mean anything from removing ‘stop-words’ between keywords, ranking and assigning sentiment scores to key topics. It can especially help with segmenting employees by preferences and satisfaction.

Sentiment analysis is important because it helps figure out what’s missing and what matters most to employees. It gives a relatively narrow band of words (compared to whole English language) a significant weighting. For example, words like ‘good’, ‘timely’, ‘effective’ and their opposites are highly weighted. Adjectives like ‘very’, ‘extremely’ and ‘not’ are also quite important. EVE’s AI recognises these words and their relation to one another. The answers are then given an overall sentiment – basically determining whether particular areas are doing well or need to be improved. From that it can be understood how employees are feeling and improvements can be driven on a ‘continuous listening’ basis.
Whether it’s chatbots or something more advanced, for the near future at least, it looks like AI will have a broad impact in attempting to improve the quality of our working (and personal) lives, and in making things more efficient.