Email Best Practices for Teams

photo-1444201716572-c60ec66d0494-2A client asked me for our best practices around email communications, to share with their globally dispersed teams.

They had learned the keys to getting to inbox zero, but their productivity was stymied by the sheer volume of unproductive emails being sent around the company. These tips were born out of the shared practices we use here at the David Allen Company with our own staff, and I wanted to share them with the GTD community.

1. Appropriate Use
Match the message to the best medium. Recognize when email is not the best method of communicating. There are times when a face-to-face meeting is better than a string of unclear or sensitive emails going back and forth. Just because the topic started on email, doesn’t mean it should stay on email. On the flip side, are there meetings being held that could be more efficiently be done over email if you trusted people were getting to inbox zero on a regular basis? (See David Allen’s article on Getting Email Under Control for great tips on that.)

2. To: vs. Cc:
Be discerning about your use of To: vs. Cc:. Why? Ever receive an email where it’s unclear who has the action because everyone is in the “To:” field? We designate the To: field for who has the action (could be multiple people). Cc: is simply for their information—with no expectation that they will take action on the email, other than receive it. Personally, I find I am much more conscious about what I am asking for, and from whom, when I clearly delineate between who has action and who just needs to receive the information. And, I appreciate when that distinction is made for me in return. I’m still processing the email to get to inbox zero, but it’s very clear to me that no action is expected of me in return.

3. Subject Lines
Use clear subject lines that clearly describe the topic. I bet you’ve had times when you’ve done an emergency scan of your email (particularly on your mobile device) and appreciated having clear subject lines (versus the proverbial “checking in” or “update”). Also, don’t be afraid to change subject lines if the topic has changed and you want to make the it clearer what the email string is about. While it might have initially started as “checking in,” now it’s moved into the “Q3 budget”–change the subject line to reflect that. Another spin on effective subject lines is to use code to indicate the end of a message, when appropriate. This kind of kind of code, such as “EOM,” can be useful for those times when you just need to send a quick bit of information back to someone
and it can be done through the email subject line. For example, for short responses such as acknowledging with “thanks” or
“I’m on it.” simply append your subject line with “EOM” after your text, to indicate “end of message.” What that means to the
person receiving it is that everything that need to know is in the subject line and they can process it based on what they are
seeing in the subject line, without even opening the email. For example: “Re: I posted Q2 spreadsheets to the database.

4. Reply to All
Resist the urge to simply click reply to all, if not everyone needs to receive your reply. Many clients tell us that their staff seem to use the Reply to All function because it’s quick and easy, not because it’s productive. On the flip side, if you’re sending emails to your designated groups, pause to consider if everyone in that group (and subsequent replies to all) really need to be receiving that email. Are their roles in the company relevant to the information? If you’re not sure, ask them. I bet they will appreciate being asked about what they are getting to help with their own email management. Another tip to avoid the Reply to All cycle is to use the Bcc: field for all recipients, when appropriate. That way only the sender will receive the replies.

5. Response Times
What are your agreed upon response times for internal and external communications? If that’s never been made explicit, there’s a good chance those who think it’s “ASAP” are feeling resentful about the ones who think it’s “when I can get to it” and think they are breaking an agreement. And the “when I can get to it” folks get annoyed by the “ASAP” folks who ask them in the hallway, “Did you get my email?”

At the David Allen Company, we have a standard to reply within two business days to all internal communications. And, it’s important to note that responding doesn’t mean completing the action. It may just be a simple acknowledgment of “I’m on it” so the other person can relax about it. Two business days is our standard that works for us. You may find you need a shorter or longer time period in your organization. The key here is not about the time, but having an agreement that’s explicit so that everyone is clear about the rules to play by.

I hope these best practices have been useful for you. I encourage you to take these ideas back to your team and organization. Get some healthy debates going about them! Adapt them to make them more your own.

–Kelly Forrister, Senior GTD Coach & Trainer

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  1. The principle of clear subject lines is definitely something I need to work on and implement to get to inbox zero.

  2. Any best practices you can share for managing your outlook inbox at work? i have stopped filing anything on my personal gmail account and simply search when i need to find something. But, that is not so easy at work in a large global enterprise environment when there might be tons of emails to sort through on any given search. Each year I search for better strategies for handling emails – filing in very specific subject folders, filing in a couple of big folders and searching when i need to retrieve something, deleting more and more, etc. … love to hear how others effectively manage this time consuming activity in the global enterprise environment.

  3. For internal communications, it is another huge efficiency win to do away with salutations. This is not 1898, we are not sending handwritten, feather and ink on parchment letters. Or even actual letters. E-mail is a electronically stored text, fairly unique as a communication medium and can be given its own rules of engagement.

    We operate within a Google Apps environment, so GMail is the norm. That has subject lines, followed by the first few words (with line feeds ignored). If the message does not start with “Dear so-and-so, I just wanted to write you a note about the fact that X has now gone into YZ mode”, but with “X has gone into YZ mode” the recipient never needs to open the message.

    Obviously this example is a good candidate for a compact subject line followed by ‘EOM’ but the principle works for adding a ‘second layer’ of front loaded information that does not really fit a subject line.

    Also, having the agreement for internal communication this way removes any discomfort about how to address some or other people. It allows people to get to the point the fastest way they know how to. And, little as it may seem, it saves on typing and thus time.

  4. Over a decade ago, I heard about a company that improved their internal e-mail by using a small set of acronyms in the subject lines, to indicate a certain type of message. ‘FYI’ is obvious, but iirc they had some more granular categories of communication type.

    By enforcing this behavior throughout the company, it became possible for many people to apply filters to their inbound e-mail and seriously cut down on the volume of e-mail that needed human attention, without losing a single bit of disseminated information.

  5. Another way to have a computer weed out the simple stuff, so humans can deal with the rest is to use aliases for mail boxes. We have a shared mail box for receiving and processing scheduling changes. This mailbox has a number of aliases, relating to the type of scheduling change. As an example, say [email protected] is used, it would have [email protected] and [email protected].

    This is not just easier for clients to remember, but e-mail filters pick up on these addresses as well and pre-sort the messages into separate buckets. Misfires will happen, but the bulk sorting is done automatically.

    In some environments (all Google mail supports this, as do a number of other big mail providers) cheap and easy aliases can be had by using a ‘+’ in the address: [email protected] and [email protected] will work exactly like aliases, with the difference that they need not be set up beforehand; GMail just strips the ‘+….’ part out to figure out where to send a message, but retains the addressing, ready for filtering.

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