The Fire-hose of Corporate Emails

Comms Failures

I had to communicate with a class early in the term, and the only way, without enrolling pastoral staff to manage it face to face, was to email them. I set the 'read receipt' flag, and hit send. Few pupils had read the email before the lesson a few days later, so I asked them what had gone wrong. I was shown inboxes full of non-personal emails and automated junk notifications telling them that a MS Teams group had been set up, that a meeting had been arranged, that the same meeting had been deleted then rearranged with different details. They had emails warning them of the weekly fire alarm testing, of the need to be in correct uniform, and telling them the menu for today's lunch. And so on. Masses of emails they didn't yet have the discipline to manage successfully. Which isn't surprising, because the school has never thought to train them, or the staff, how to use email effectively.

Policy Vacuum

It has always amazed me that every school I have worked in has produced such an overwhelming number of internal emails while also having no policy on how to make this important channel of communication function well.

Through the last two years, under pressure of working from home, our staff transitioned to using Teams to communicate with both pupils and colleagues. This was a two edged sword, as while it successfully corralled many messages into context based channels, Teams was allowed to send update notifications via email, and senior staff adopted a belt and braces method of emailing everyone to tell them they should read the Teams message or document. This caused a lot of trouble, as anyone who has Facebook Messenger, Signal, WhatsApp, and SMS on their phones will understand — it is difficult to remember where important messages can be found.

This was eminently solvable with a policy defining which communications went where, and which could provide a common structure and naming conventions to the many Teams Groups which had been set up ad hoc during the rapid transition. But the confusion persisted until we are now all back in the school and Teams has been largely abandoned for the email fire-hose. And with no policy on when to send or how to use emails, or how to write informative subject lines or structure content for rapid scanning, inboxes fill up with hundreds of partially dealt with or unread emails, and important messages go unseen or unanswered.

What is the Role of Email?

So what is email for? Is it to replace face to face discussions, or the newsletters, or formal policy updates? Is it a way for functionaries to demonstrate their existence and usefulness via regular reminders of what they are doing? Is it a way for teams to coordinate their activities, or for teachers and administrators to share with students the important information of the day?

The answer to all these questions seems to be yes. Whatever the question is, the answer is always yes — send out an email, for any and all reasons both automated and personal, in bulk or to individuals individual, in the hope someone will read it before it disappears off the bottom of the screen or gets lost in the mass of irrelevant and uninteresting emails that fills everyone's working and school lives.

So what SHOULD we use email for? It is such a valuable resource we should all be careful with how we use it. Emails should have a defined purpose, while other communication methods can be set up which are more appropriate for other information. A free-for-all is dysfunctional.

But defining what emails should be used for is really quite difficult — it is easier to define what is not suitable, and provide the alternative routes for those items and enforce the rule. Email, then, will be for what's left, and the process can be progressively refined instead of aiming for a big bang behaviour change. And once the processes have been defined, there is still some room for training staff and pupils how to write and manage their emails in a productive way.

I will expand on each of these areas in future posts.

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