How to reduce email overload and build a culture of personal communication

Recently, I was doing some stakeholder interviews as part of a communications audit for a client. I wanted to find out what employees liked about the way the organization communicates, and what frustrates them. 

A really interesting pattern emerged from all the interviews. Of the thirty-odd people I spoke with, all mentioned email (too much) and the intranet (too hard to find information), but just one lone voice mentioned the importance of face to face communications. 

It’s easy with the plethora of fantastic digital tools at our fingertips to only think of communication in terms of pixels. The concept of making organizational communication faster, more efficient, less overwhelming has enormous appeal.

But even (perhaps, especially) in a multi-site organization like this client, face to face may still be your most important, not-so-secret weapon. Especially if you want to cut down on the overwhelm caused by non-stop, 24-7 email culture.


It Builds Trust 

Trust is a critical element of a well-functioning organization. As the Center for Creative Leadership notes, “when trust is present, people step forward and do their best work, together, efficiently. They align around a common purpose, take risks, think out of the box, have each other’s backs, and communicate openly and honestly. When trust is absent, people jockey for position, hoard information, play it safe, and talk about— rather than to—one another.”
Face to face communication builds trust in many ways, particularly, as leadership communication expert Dr Carol Kinsey Goman notes, by allowing the emotional nuance behind the words to be mutually understood. 

It can be more efficient

We can all think of a situation where one phone call would have saved a day of increasingly frustrated emails being sent back and forth.

Email was designed to make our lives more efficient, but an over-reliance on it has instead created a daily nightmare, where the average employee’s inbox contains 199 unread emails.

In a recent survey, 67% of senior executives and managers said their organization’s productivity would increase if superiors communicated face-to-face more often. 

Hard to deny the logic of that.

Roger that, Charlie

Ultimately, communication is about sending and receiving messages effectively.

Often, though, those sending a message confuse the fact of having sent it, with it having been received, internalized and acted upon.  

GBS illusion in communication.jpg

If communication allows employees to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and feel connected to and valued by their organization, it’s fundamentally working.

According to the latest global research by Gatehouse, over three quarters of communicators report that their face to face channels are effective, with that number jumping to 85% for all-staff town halls, conferences or roadshows. 

While email is heavily used and still considered an effective channel, open and click-through rates, suggest that fewer employees than expected open or fully read email messages (e.g., CEO emails have an average open rate of 60%, employee newsletters 56%).

On the other hand, Harvard research has demonstrated that face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to garner positive responses than email. 

So, how do you build a culture of interpersonal communication at work?

Here are a few low cost, low effort tips you can implement today:

  • Introduce a rule of no cell phones at meetings. Not only will it make meetings faster and more effective, employees will quickly get the message that face to face communication is more important than answering that ‘urgent’ email. 

  • Schedule regular days for remote or off-site workers to come into the main site. Make sure that you hold town hall meetings or other get-togethers on these days, to help everyone feel part of the team and to signal the importance of face to face communication.

  • Place chairs and tables around kitchen areas to encourage impromptu conversations.

  • Make it clear that ‘quick questions’ for someone who works in the same building should be handled over the phone or face to face. You can find fun ways to help employees implement these rules without big brother looking over their shoulder, like this one: Start an ‘email jar’ akin to a swear jar, which collects funds from unnecessary emails to put towards an end of year party.

  • Hold fitness challenges - employees wanting to meet a daily step goal are more likely to walk to a colleague’s desk for a discussion, plus they’ll be healthier and happier as a bonus!

  • Encourage staff to switch off email pop-up notifications: if they’re checking email less frequently, the temptation to shoot off a quick query or unnecessary message via email, anticipating an immediate reply, will be reduced.

  • Help team members get to know each other at a personal level, so they can build relationships and feel comfortable approaching colleagues in person to resolve issues. Social events or even profiling individuals in communication campaigns can be a great way to do this. 

How do you build a culture of interpersonal communication at your workplace? Share your tips in the comments section, we’d love to hear them.