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Use with care: Covid makes work emails trickier than ever


Last week a 14 word email landed in my inbox from someone called Greg who didn’t like a column I had just written on green investing.

“The grass is green,” he says. “Are you going to invest in that too?” What a crazy article. ”

There is a lot to admire in an email like this. It was short. It had a point and its meaning was more or less clear. Alas, he stumbled upon another measure. It was unpleasant.

It comes with the territory if you are lucky enough to get paid to write for a journal. But Greg’s sour words also served as a reminder of how delicate ordinary work emails have become in these difficult Covid times, when much of what we said in person is now done by pressing send.

Shortly after the arrival of this email, emerged that UK climate officials had reviewed research suggesting that tons of carbon emissions could be cut if something was done about the 64 million useless emails Britons send to each other every day. Disturbingly, the two deemed most unnecessary said “thank you” or “thank you”.

I am all in favor of reducing emissions. I know email relies on laptops and data centers powered by electricity that is currently far from clean. But if the strains of pandemic life have shown anything, it’s that we need more civility, not less.

At least three times over the past few months, I have sent out a carefully crafted email to ask or answer a business question, and have received a blunt one-word response (“no”; “maybe ”) Or no response at all.

It would be one thing if they were people I worked with or knew well, but quite another when they aren’t.

I tend to forgive non-responders, having forgotten to reply to so many emails myself lately that I’ve started sending calendar reminders on those who really need answered.

The short word is more complicated.

Every time I received one I told myself that the sender was busy and distracted, not trying to be deliberately dismissive. Yet one question still persists.

It never occurred to me that someone else might be bothered by this sort of thing until a friend confided the other day that he, too, had received some blunt emails in his business. that had shaken him.

He had formed a sane theory about it. “It’s like a long distance relationship,” he says. In the absence of physical contact, we analyze each piece of writing with pathetic intensity. In the process, we are likely to create meaning from words that an unhappy writer never wanted to convey.

He was right. While some terse emails do mean to send a terse message, I’m inclined to think most are just dealing with the countless trials of Covid life.

Does this make their emails forgivable? Probably, although the line should be drawn for any boss who thinks it’s reasonable to respond to a thoughtful email from a subordinate with the darkest of one-word responses: “Noted.”

I suspect that, in a way, we understand that 2020 has increased the value of polite, timely, and considerate email.

This may explain why at some point after the lockdowns began this year, I found myself signing work emails differently.

Instead of the bland “best wishes” and “kindly greetings” that I had used for years, I suddenly started saying “all the best” or even “all the best”. Worse yet, there has been an undeniable increase in my use of exclamation marks in emails, a punctuation mark that I generally avoid.

Most alarming of all, I started to use emoji. There is something about its straightforward simplicity that makes it encouraging. It started with friends on WhatsApp, but has now drifted into co-workers. It may only be a matter of time before a yellow nudge is sent to an unsuspecting FTSE 100 leader or unknown reader.

Speaking of which, Greg, if you’re reading this, I didn’t have time to answer you earlier, but now I do: “Noted.”

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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