4 Tips to Avoid Office Email Hell

Make your work emails less painful with action, reasoning, context, and deadlines.

1/18/20244 min read

a close up of a cell phone with various app icons
a close up of a cell phone with various app icons

Email often feels like a necessary evil—or an outright, unequivocal evil when using it for work.

OK, so maybe it’s not that bad. But most work email needs improvement, right? Here’s some advice for being a better communicator via electronic mail. (I’m talking to you, too, managers.)

The problem most people have when sending work email is they don’t anticipate what the person they’re talking to doesn’t know. Put differently: it’s hard to get out of our own heads. We know what we want (usually), and we know what we know (usually). But we’re not good at giving that information to other people because we assume they know what we know!

That assumption is wrong. And it can lead to frustrating strings of email asking for clarification—not to mention the passive-aggressive responses. To avoid email Hell, include these four points in your office communiqué:

1. Action: What exactly do you want the person to do?

This is the point most often included in work email, but its importance can’t be overstressed. Never assume that your coworkers or employees know what you want them to do. Be as specific as possible.

Bad Action: “Can you give me a report on our social media?”

This kind of action is bound to send a social media manager into fits of rage. What kind of report? What metrics do you want to see? ALL of our social media or something specific like Facebook? What kind of analysis are you looking for? It’s too general, too vague, too daunting. Try this instead:

Good Action: “Please write a short report about the amount of conversation on our Facebook and Twitter pages and send it to me in an email.”

This action is more specific about length without being micro-managerial, it asks for specific metrics without having to know the jargon, and it limits the scope of the work. It also lets the receiver know how you want the action delivered. (Being polite doesn’t hurt, either.)

2. Reasoning: Why do you want the action done?

Your coworkers and employees are not machines. No matter what the job, they have to use their minds and reason through every task. It’s important to acknowledge this fact when you’re sending an email—especially if you’re requesting a task that seems either trivial or enormously important. In either case, receivers usually wonder why you’re passing the task off to them!

Bad Reasoning: “The press release has to go out before you leave work today.”

The example above is at least a reason, if bad. Usually reasoning is entirely absent from office emails. The implied reasoning is always “because I said so.” People want to know why they’re supposed to do the requested action. And remember: When a good reason is provided, people can surprise you with ingenious solutions.

Good Reasoning: “The press release needs to be in reporters’ inboxes by 7 a.m. tomorrow morning so they have enough time to write about our evening event. Please make sure it goes out before you leave for the day.”

The reason is more clear and more compelling. It explains why the receiver must work hard to get the press release out, and it shows that the sender’s request is not arbitrary. Beautiful.

3. Context: What’s the purpose of the action? What are the constraints?

Context is different from reasoning because even if you have a good reason for asking someone to do something, the context—the purpose of the action and the constraints—might suggest a better action to the receiver. That is, the sender doesn’t always know best. This is especially true when you’re emailing someone with a highly developed skill set like a graphic designer or editor.

Bad Context: “Please create a sign for future conventions so people know how much the DVDs cost and who to make checks out to.”

There’s some context here and it hints at the purpose of the action, but it should go further:

Good Context: “We want to get customers through the sales line as fast as possible at future conventions. Please create a sign that’s easily readable at a distance but fits on a regular piece of paper. It should include the DVD price ($20) and information about making out checks to XYZ Company.”

Sure, this is a bit longer than the original, but it will save at least one email back and forth for clarification. It also gives the receiver extra information to suggest additional actions. We might get people through the line quicker if there was an electronic payment option, for instance.

4. Deadline: When do you need the action completed?

The scourge of all office email is lack of deadlines. Seriously. Usually, the sender is trying to be considerate, but what ends up happening is receivers don’t know how to prioritize the new action with the rest of their work. It creates chaos.

Bad Deadline: “When you can, please write a blog post about our trip to Chicago.”

The phrases “When you can” or “When you have time” or “At your convenience” are not deadlines. They’re dreadlines. They create uncertainty and usually lead to tension between the sender and receiver. The sender thinks the action isn’t being prioritized correctly, and the receiver thinks the action isn’t important enough to rush. CHAOS.

Good Deadline: “Please write a blog post about our trip to Chicago. I would like it to post at 5:00 p.m. on Monday.”

Oh, the clarity! Isn’t it grand? And simple? Now the receiver can easily prioritize the post along with other work. Deadlines create a great sense of positive work flow since not all requests feel urgent. Peace of mind for everyone involved.

BONUS: Don’t send an email.

If the action, reasoning, context, or deadline is complex, avoid the email kerfuffle altogether and give someone a call. Or walk into their office. Or start a Google Meet. It’ll save you a lot of time in the long run.