How can I get my subordinates to reply to e-mail consistently?
October 25, 2010 8:24 AM   Subscribe

How do I get my subordinates to reply to my e-mails? I work remotely, but they don't. I need to know that they've read what I send them. Details about work situation below.

I supervise about a dozen writers and researchers. About half of them work in an office together and the other half work remotely like I do. For most intents and purposes, I am their boss, but I don't have the power to fire or give raises. (The office folks work in the same office as our big bosses and owners of the company.) Here's the problem:

I really really need them to reply to the e-mails I send. If they don't at least reply with a "Roger!" or "Got it" I have no idea if the e-mail has gotten through to them, if they've opened it or if they've read it. Most of the e-mails I can't get a reply to are sent to the group as a whole either about the next project or a recap of what we've done or a change in policy. I don't want to be anal about this, but it's really important that I know people are actually reading these e-mails.

When response rates drop off, I send a nice e-mail reminding people that I really do need to know since it's over the internet and I don't have any other feedback mechanism to know that we're all on the same page. Sometimes, this is followed by a grumpy e-mail later the same week when people still aren't replying. The problem is, I'm starting to sound like a broken record. I'm having to go through this song and dance more and more often. I know it seems redundant to them, but I seriously can't do my job without knowing they've gotten and read the e-mails. I always include a reminder in the group e-mails to reply to let me know that they've gotten them. Sometimes, I follow up a group e-mail with a "You need to reply to this" e-mail the next day if I haven't heard from people.

How can I impress upon them the importance of replying to e-mails? I am so sick of this, and it's making me a worse boss since I'm spending time dealing with this stupidness instead of doing the other parts of my job. I really just need them all to get into the routine of hitting "Reply" for every single e-mail they get from me. I need this to take up way less of my time than it is, and I need them to tell me that they're reading e-mails without me tracking each of them down after every single e-mail I send. (OK, slight exaggeration. But it feels that way!)

(To preempt: We use gmail primarily, not a server processed through outlook, so turning on e-mail receipts isn't a solution. If it matters, this is the first job most for most of these workers.)
posted by stoneweaver to Work & Money (61 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you not able to assume they've read the email? Is there something wrong with your mail servers?
posted by caek at 8:30 AM on October 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is there any way you can contact the person that DOES have the power to fire, and impress upon them that these people are not doing what they need to be doing?
posted by coupdefoudre at 8:32 AM on October 25, 2010

Have you explained to them why you need this information, and asked them for suggestions about the best way for them to inform you they read the email? Getting their ideas -- especially as you have no real power over them -- is most likely to be effective.

If you do have power (assigning tasks, say), you may be able to give some of the best tasks to the people who actually reply without being asked to, but this should be a last resort, after you've asked them to solve the problem.
posted by jeather at 8:32 AM on October 25, 2010

We use gmail. And plenty of people ignore e-mails all the time. Assuming that they've read critical information really just isn't going to cut it. If it were forwards from Aunt Erma, whatever. But new procedures and updates? Nope, I need to know that they've at least opened it. It's pretty hard to manage people if you're not sure everyone's on the same page.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:33 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is this something you can codify as a policy? That is, get your own boss to back you up, such that those who fail to properly acknowledge emails are faced with, you know, material consequences?
posted by SMPA at 8:33 AM on October 25, 2010

Are these tasks? Can you have a big spreadsheet with tasks, assign them to people, and have people check them off?

I am a firm believer that email is not a good place for project management.
posted by k8t at 8:35 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really just need them all to get into the routine of hitting "Reply" for every single e-mail they get from me.

I just don't see this happening. And if it does happen, it's going to breed resentment and discord and undermine your leadership. It may seem like a small thing to ask, but ultimately you're expecting them to modify the way they use a certain technology -- one which they use constantly for all personal and professional communications -- just to appease your worry that they might have missed something. In their eyes (and mine), you are micro-managing them.

They are currently passive-aggressively letting you know that they aren't interested in conforming to this expectation. Be a better boss by paying attention to what your team is telling you and finding a new way to manage your communications.
posted by hermitosis at 8:35 AM on October 25, 2010 [31 favorites]

Stoneweaver, I understand your problem. There are two elements to it. One is the people centric element to it and the other is a technological solution to it.

First the technical one: this is an email tracking application which works with gmail unless the recipients of your email actively block this functionality. In which case you have a deeper problem.

You could also think about using a project management tool of some sort?

Second, this is to do with the level of cohesiveness and motivation of your team.

- If they are young people who have not been in a work situation this may be a part of their mentoring where you explain to them that when other people depend on them it is nice to let them know you are on the job.

- Many young people I have worked with are more open to instant messaging than email when it comes to feedback.

-Do think bout this from their end as to how they feel being monitored very closely.

- Sometimes they will be motivated to respond if they feel that you are equally 'available' to address their concerns

- You could try and change the way you draft your emails and use appropriate language such as " I am assuming that you are on track with the blah blah blah and unless I hear from you otherwise I will expect to receive the first draft of blah blah blah by Thursday. If you think you will have problems meeting this let me know before end of today if possible...

I hope this helps.
posted by london302 at 8:36 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW what you're asking for would annoying the snot out of me and I'd ignore you, too.

Group emails are revolting; group replies in particular clog my Inbox and are generally considered bad form, probably even more so with the generation you seem to be dealing with. Sending an email to say I've received your email seems ridiculous to me; I'm probably not going to do it unless you threaten to fire me.

Why on Earth would you not just assume people are reading the emails you send?

If you really, really need to get something out of this system you're not getting, change the system. Use a project manager app like Basecamp or Teamwork to actually manager your projects. Upload the new docs there so that people need to actively come and get them rather than receiving them passively in their Inbox. The ability to check when your team has last logged in should be reassuring to you.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:36 AM on October 25, 2010 [20 favorites]

I really just need them all to get into the routine of hitting "Reply" for every single e-mail they get from me.

Seriously? You need a reply to every single e-mail? That sounds overly anal, and unrealistic. If there are no action items in the body of the e-mail, I think it's going overboard to want a reply to your e-mail. If there are action items, you should be very specific- every project should have a leader, at least in terms of who will communicate project status to you.

But new procedures and updates? Nope, I need to know that they've at least opened it. It's pretty hard to manage people if you're not sure everyone's on the same page.
Can't that be done by enforcing the procedure itself? Seems like a waste of energy to go after the e-mail issue if the ultimate goal is to have the procedure implemented.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:36 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

You don't need to use GMail's web interface to use GMail's servers. You can use another mail client to send read receipts.
posted by mkb at 8:37 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I send emails to my staff I operate under premise that they read them. This is their responsibility. I'm not their mom. If it turns out they made a bad decision because they did not read an email, then I will deal with that as a performance issue. Start assuming they've read them and your life will get less stressful.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:39 AM on October 25, 2010 [37 favorites]

For my part, I am way more inclined to "hear" and absorb a procedure change or update when everyone affected has been gathered together for a quick standup meeting and given the news/told why it's so important (especially if the norm is to get these updates via email, which are so easy to ignore).

Is there someone in the office who could gather the folks there together and explain how critical this step is? And call the others who work remotely?
posted by anderjen at 8:40 AM on October 25, 2010

Rather than reminding them as a group every so often, put them on the spot individually and in person. For example, phone a guy who hasn't reponded to, say, 3 emails in a row and say "Hey guy, I noticed you hadn't replied to my emails in a couple of days. Are you receiving them OK? Um, I think so. Did you get the ones today about procedures X and Y? Yeah. Is there a reason you didn't reply to them as I have asked previously? Uh.... I realise sometimes you're absorbed in your writing/research work and it's easy to forget to respond to something if you don;t do it immediately, but please make sure to put aside 15 minutes every morning/afternoon/whatever to read and reply to my emails. It takes up a lot of my time to chase people up to check they've read them. Thanks."

It's easy to dismiss a group email, but a phone call and a specific personal enquiry is not brush-off-able in the same way. If these are not especially computer literate people, maybe tell them how to set up a daily reminder (that pops-up a reminder message rather than just a scheduled email) to check/respond to emails.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:41 AM on October 25, 2010

But new procedures and updates? Nope, I need to know that they've at least opened it. It's pretty hard to manage people if you're not sure everyone's on the same page.

Your supervisees have handed you a dilemma (how do I know if they've read it), and they're making you work harder than you ought to.

There are two ways to handle this that make it back into their dilemma (how do I show that I do what's required of me), as it should be:

1) Arrange with your boss in some way to make it clear that acknowledgement of emails is a job requirement, and something upon which they will be evaluated; or,

2) Make clear to them that they are responsible for knowing and acting according to the information in the emails, and their performance will be evaluated on that basis.

Both solutions remove you from this your task list, and put it back on theirs, as it should be.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on October 25, 2010

"Most of the e-mails I can't get a reply to are sent to the group as a whole either about the next project or a recap of what we've done or a change in policy."

i would quickly respond with a 'roger' if the email is directed to me. if the email is sent to the whole group, i wouldn't because it would seem to me to be a broadcast email is really just a fyi, and doesn't need an acknowledgment to clutter things up.

i think asking for your team to respond to a group email is a little over the top. if you really need to know they saw it, send it to them individually, or ask them to respond in the email.

if you want to get verification that the email went out, create an email account on your office's server, and then have it notify you in your home account when it receives something.
posted by lester at 8:42 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are two problems here: a technical one and a human one. The technical one is that email was not originally meant to be a real-time, guaranteed delivery service, and any post hoc attempt to get around this using technology (like read receipts) is going to meet with friction.

The human organization problem is that your interests and your subordinates are not aligned: you perceive a need for them to respond to these emails, and they do not. (If they did, they'd be answering them!) As SMPA says, one way to ensure compliance in email response is to provide an enforcement mechanism with consequences. This means you'll need to be given actual power of some kind, or obtain buy-in from your boss.

But there is a third way: checking in, on a scheduled basis, using a mode of communication that was designed to be interactive and real-time. Seriously, just set up a phone call or IM session with each of the people you need responses from. They don't have to be long. Just make sure you say, at some point during the chat, "Hey, did you get emails A, B, and C? [wait for agreement] Okay, cool."

Of course, if there are so many of these MUST RESPOND emails that the check-in chats are perceived as onerous, I guarantee that the emails themselves are perceived as onerous, and there are other organizational problems that maybe could use addressing.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 8:43 AM on October 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's pretty hard to manage people if you're not sure everyone's on the same page.

It’s pretty hard to do your job if you feel like your supervisor doesn’t trust you to do it.

You are definitely micromanaging. I work in Outlook, and if every single email from my boss came with a read receipt on it? I’d be pissed. Knowing how to open and read emails is a BASIC skill that all of your employees should have. They are adults; treat them as such. If you are seeing evidence of certain employees not reading your emails, deal with them individually.
posted by yawper at 8:45 AM on October 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

You need to make it crystal clear that they're expected to read each and every email from you, that it is part of their job description, and they are individually completely responsible for keeping up with the communication from you. You will have to do this through some medium other than email - a conference call, perhaps. From there, you just assume they are doing their jobs. If they end up missing some piece of critical information, it's their failure, not yours.

Asking them to reply to each and every email would piss me off, too, is highly inefficient, and is definitely crossing into micro-managing territory. If your employees can't even be trusted to read their emails, after being explicitly told that they need to, you have bigger problems.
posted by cgg at 8:45 AM on October 25, 2010

Can you do weekly calls that would condense this information? I am like anderjen and will more likely remember the information when it is told to me, rather than information that is just one of dozens of emails I get every day. Also, it might help to solidify team management to have weekly meetings and statuses in a call, followed up by a summary email, rather than just the email.
posted by chiefthe at 8:47 AM on October 25, 2010

Having read other people's responses, if you want to move away from getting individual replies from every email, how about using IM - e.g. 30 minutes after each email, start a group conversation and say "Hey, can everyone confirm they have read the email about X?". Then everyone just has to check in with "yes" and then carry on with whatever they were doing before. If someone doesn't answer then you can follow up with a phone call or whatever.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:47 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't want to be anal about this, but it's really important that I know people are actually reading these e-mails.

It is possible (dare I say commonplace) to reply to an email without reading the email. If you are trying to ensure that the emails get read, then requiring a simple rote response will not do it.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:47 AM on October 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

Sounds like a perfect opportunity for an instant messenger solution. Or gChat.
posted by jz at 9:02 AM on October 25, 2010

Yeah, I don't mean to pile on, but I work remotely and if I had to acknowledge every email I received from my boss I'd quit faster than you could say "email".

If your email is informative and not requiring an action then it really is unrealistic to expect a response. Further, why on earth would you do that to yourself? When I was running the show at my last gig I HATED getting email responses from people who just replied with "ok boss" or similar things. It's just one more message I had to open and a couple more keystrokes to make it go away.

Adjust your expectations and hold people accountable on the back end if it's clear they did not read a particular email.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:03 AM on October 25, 2010

If you must: DidTheyReadIt. All the niceities of Read Receipts, none of the hassle.
posted by deezil at 9:04 AM on October 25, 2010

I know it seems redundant to them, but I seriously can't do my job without knowing they've gotten and read the e-mails.

Could you explain why this is so? Is your work somehow time sensitive, where you need the writer or researcher to finish before you can go to another phase?
posted by nomadicink at 9:05 AM on October 25, 2010

It isn't important that they read the e-mail, it is important that they process whatever information is in that email. This is highly dependent on what you are sending out.

If the information you are sending out is critical to their job function, I would think it would become pretty obvious very soon if they are not reading them and could be brought up in a simple performance discussion.

"These emails tell you when X assignment is due. You are always late. You need to turn in your deliverables on time. Reading these emails will be a start and result in an improvement in your performance."

If you cannot make that sort of case, then I would question the value of the e-mails you are sending out. If they are not feeling any benefit from reading these e-mails other than not getting nagged by you, then you are just spamming them. Why should they read your emails just for the sake of reading them??
posted by like_neon at 9:05 AM on October 25, 2010

Especially if you can't fire them or give them a raise!
posted by like_neon at 9:13 AM on October 25, 2010

Ok, a couple things:

1) Group emails blow. No one reads them. Accept that. To get around it, send emails through the mail merge function in Word. You can even personalize them with the persons name. Response rates / read rates are way higher when an email appears to be solely directed at one person. Oh dang, you use Gmail. Well for others reading this thread, that technique works like a charm.

2. Are you clearly asking for action in your emails, as in "I need you to fizzle the woozle by no later that Thursday at 11:00am with an email to me confirming the fizzling of the woozle"

3. Follow-up or Preempt emails with phone calls / voice mails. Simple and quick "I just sent you a new procedure document on how we are now going to fizzle the woozles. Please familiarize yourself with it. Have a good day. Good bye". Put people on speed-dial. You can call someone and give them a heads up in 20 seconds.

4. Get yourself a conference line. Schedule meetings with the conference line as the location. Take roll, communicate the new procedure for fizzling woozles, be done with it.

Email is a communication plague. Far too many people think they are doing work, myself included, when they are blasting off emails. The more emails you send a day, the less potent your messages become. You have got to get people in a room, or get them on the phone. You cannot hide behind email. Yes, I agree, people should read their email. But if you get 100 emails a day like me, the person who calls me to follow-up is going to get my attention.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:16 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

And plenty of people ignore e-mails all the time. Assuming that they've read critical information really just isn't going to cut it.

Assuming they're responsible professional adults will definitely cut it.

Don't send group email. Don't insist on read receipts, and don't micromanage. Those are shitty, demoralizing things to do to people. Set deadlines and establish goals and principles, send a small number of emails with pertinent information in them and trust people to do their jobs. If they don't do their jobs, call one-on-one meetings with them to address those issues or otherwise correct course.

If you value your employee's time, then stop interrupting them and let them do their jobs.

I really just need them all to get into the routine of hitting "Reply" for every single e-mail they get from me.

That's how you communicate with 6-year-olds, not adults.
posted by mhoye at 9:30 AM on October 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you asked them do this and couched it as "this is just a little quirky something I as a manager need for my personal way of managing; I realize it's not standard" then I think you'd get good compliance.

But if you couch it as "this is the way it's done and you must do it this way" then you're going to get more of the same (passive aggressive refusal to comply) because you're unfairly accusing them since what you're asking for is simply not the in the ordinary course of email etiquette.

Also, you're supervising writers. Consider that it might be especially aggravating to them to have to interrupt their workflow to respond to non-urgent emails immediately after they get them.
posted by yarly at 9:34 AM on October 25, 2010

Sorry I keep posting, but I should have read the entire thread better. Apologies.

"But new procedures and updates? Nope, I need to know that they've at least opened it. It's pretty hard to manage people if you're not sure everyone's on the same page."

No, you don't need to know that they've "at least opened it". You need to know that they apply these new procedures and updates, regardless of how they got their information.

The problem is not "You did not read this email", the problem is "You do not know the correct procedures to do your job". That is a very easy thing to spot and pull someone up, on an individual basis.

If people are doing their job the right way despite not reading your e-mail, what's the problem?
posted by like_neon at 9:38 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I were working for you, I would totally reply to every message you sent me so quickly that your head would spin, but I would do it with an auto reply so I could spend more time doing my job. I really think you need to do as others have suggested, and treat your employees like they are adults.
posted by emelenjr at 9:45 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


You may want to watch this talk by Merlin Mann. The main thrust of his argument is that your ability to do great work is entirely predicated on your ability to give your uninterrupted, time and attention and care to the thing you're working on.

Being frequently interrupted by somebody who doesn't trust you to act like a professional, or even an adult, makes it almost impossible to do any of those three things. A good quote:

"Nobody thinks they're bad at email. Except you guys; you know, the people who show up for these thing are the most open to the idea that there's an improvement opportunity here. Did you notice that none of the people who make your lives hell are in this room?"

posted by mhoye at 9:46 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think I left a critical detail out of my original question, and these responses are picking up on it:

The e-mails I need a reply to go out maybe once every two weeks (generally about every 20 days as that's our publishing schedule). This is not me wanting to chat with them about it every time.

However, I didn't know about tools like Basecamp and Teamwork. I'm going to look into those to see if they will solve the problem.

I chat with these people by IM pretty regularly, but for the "We're doing XYZ next, and these things have changed from last time" type e-mails, it's just not practical to talk to each of them individually. And it's pretty clear that at least some of the time they don't read them at all, because they work on the wrong thing or keep the old procedures in place.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:47 AM on October 25, 2010

Could you explain why this is so? Is your work somehow time sensitive, where you need the writer or researcher to finish before you can go to another phase?

posted by stoneweaver at 9:49 AM on October 25, 2010

I had something about you being way past anal, then I read your response.

If you need a reply to this message than just put in the subject that you'd like a reply, or somewhere in the mail. People can't read minds, and if you're sending emails that don't require a reply and then send one that does without some sort of indication you're not going to get replies.

Even if there's some sort of informational thing where you say that a certain type of email gets a reply. People get into the habit of reading and not replying.
posted by theichibun at 9:52 AM on October 25, 2010

If you must have acknowledgment, then I'd say eliminate the requirement to reply to each.

Tell everyone okay, every single work day around 3p I am sending an email that lists the emails I have sent out to the group in the preceding 24 hours. If you see something in that list that you didn't receive or that you need me to resend, let me know. If you don't get this summary email from me, or an email saying I don't have a summary, let me know. You are all responsible for reading and comprehending the emails that get sent out, I'm not checking up on email delivery anymore.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:52 AM on October 25, 2010

Good lord! If I were sending enough e-mails in 24 hours that I could write a summary e-mail of them, I wouldn't be getting anything else done! Most of the writers receive less than one e-mail a week from me.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:54 AM on October 25, 2010

All the wisdom you seek has already been laid out, so I'll summarize:

It isn't important that they read the e-mail, it is important that they process whatever information is in that email.

This is what you must come to understand if you want to manage these people effectively. Information & processes are important; email is not.

That's how you communicate with 6-year-olds, not adults.

This summarizes why you're not getting the responses you want.

Can't that be done by enforcing the procedure itself?

This is the ultimate answer to your question.

You can email, IM, meet, conference-call, cajole, and yell, but sooner or later someone is going to ignore, miss, or make an honesty mistake and forget the information. So your process must include making sure people are doing their jobs, not mindless replies that make you feel better. I'm not suggesting punitive measures; rather, I'm suggesting that you come up with a way to monitor people, check it regularly (spot-checks are okay if you don't have time to check everything), and call out & help the people who mess up. Once people realize that they get calls from you when they mess up (even if they're nice calls) they'll start reading those emails regularly to avoid the embarrassment of getting calls from their boss saying "you messed up." And you won't be interrupting their work with absurd requests for replies.

Also, you might want to reevaluate what is "really important" (your words). You said some of the emails are "a recap of what we've done." How on earth is that "really important?" It seems that you are bombarding them with information with little regard to what is critical vs. not critical, so no wonder they're tuning it all out.
posted by Tehhund at 9:56 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're sending these emails only occasionally as you suggest (as opposed to daily, or multiple times a day) why don't you try simply putting "Response Required: " in the Subject: line? I do this for things that require a response (just like it says) to groups of ADD/email deluged colleagues and it mostly works.
posted by donovan at 9:57 AM on October 25, 2010

Oops, waited too long between preview and post.

I agree with theichibun, put in the subject line that you need a reply.

Really though, these people should do it because there's a consequence to not reading their email and doing their job accordingly. If there's no consequence, you will still be chasing them down and/or they will still not be doing stuff correctly.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:57 AM on October 25, 2010

"The e-mails I need a reply to go out maybe once every two weeks (generally about every 20 days as that's our publishing schedule)."

Ah, that clears this up a bit. So this is a regular, predictable communication. You need a regular conference call after these milestones. Make it 30 minutes, keep it on-topic, and never ever go over time. Ask one of the people with hire/fire power to attend occasionally so your team members can't skip out without looking bad. That has your feedback mechanism built in - they ask questions, or say "No questions" on their end. Make it pleasant! Celebrate the great progress they've made while updating the team. Celebrate the upcoming progress they'll make (by keeping up with the new info you're discussing).
posted by Tehhund at 10:02 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

it's pretty clear that at least some of the time they don't read them at all, because they work on the wrong thing or keep the old procedures in place.

Do you have the authority to insist they re-do their work if it's not done to the current standards? Do you have the ear of anyone who can?

I worked at a company where, if staff didn't do something properly, the manager would return your work and advise you that it was done incorrectly with no other explanation.

As a worker, you would have to dig through ALL the old e-mails, find the new process and re-do the work. It became easier to just read those update e-mails as they came in.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:04 AM on October 25, 2010

The e-mails I need a reply to go out maybe once every two weeks (generally about every 20 days as that's our publishing schedule).

Since the emails are not that frequent, I think replacing them with a quick conf call is the way to go here.
posted by Dragonness at 10:05 AM on October 25, 2010

You need a regular conference call after these milestones.

What Tehhund said.
posted by Dragonness at 10:08 AM on October 25, 2010

I feel your pain, and I'm sure it feels reasonable to you.

Right now, it feels like this: I sent an email, bob didn't respond.
If you got everyone to respond...then it'll be, 'Hey, it's been four hours, bob didn't respond"...
and if you got everyone to'll be, 'Hey, it's been four minutes, bob didn't respond." Etc.

Instead of trying to micromanage and force responses....just let everyone know that from now on, you'll assume that they have read the email within 24 hours/1 business day, instead of trying to keep them on a chain.

If you need a response, add it to your subject line. So this post would be be "Information, response needed. Act: Oct 26th by 2pm"

And if you need a response faster than one day? Email isn't the method you should use. Perhaps IM might be a better way - again, you'll have them revolting from control, but if everyone uses gmail, then have them all sign into GTalk. This is another form of micromanaging too, mind you.

The problem with all these technologies, is that our etiquette hasn't quite caught up.
posted by filmgeek at 10:10 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

And it's pretty clear that at least some of the time they don't read them at all, because they work on the wrong thing or keep the old procedures in place.

This is your problem, not that they don't read the e-mails. Pull them up during a one to one ("What's going on, you need to do this right") when they fail to do their job properly. Take note and feed into their performance review.
posted by like_neon at 10:24 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I telecommute/work as a writer in a role similar to the one you're describing above. I actually like getting emails from HQ because it helps me stay focused and up-to-speed with everything since I'm not in the office. I've noticed the editors send more frequent (once-per-week) but rather brief emails that don't overwhelm everyone all at once. They also are very good at giving positive feedback, rather than just saying "Hey! Here's what you need to do. Please do it effective ASAP." Occasionally that happens, but there's a lot of feedback happening too which helps keep it from being "Ugh, not ANOTHER email." HQ has been pretty good about facilitating a community work experience so people sort of "know" each other even virtually too, so I think we feel somewhat accountable to each other as co-workers. We don't conference call much, but we have before, and it's helped having everyone on the phone at once. We are not expected to reply to emails, and like other people are saying, unless it was a once-in-a-while request I think responding to everything would get really really tedious.

I think a better solution is to say through a group email "Just a heads up, I'm going to schedule a time to IM/call you this week to check-in and update you on new procedures!" Yeah, this might make people feel like they are being micro-managed for a minute, but they'll get over it if you communicate effectively and are nice. Or if you know certain individuals aren't reading them, can you send an email to the individual person "Hey, a quick reminder about xxx. We're doing it this way now. Please keep it in mind! " A dozen or so people is small enough to foster relationships with every individual, and that might help with this.
posted by Rocket26 at 10:40 AM on October 25, 2010

Tehhund said it very well. I'll just pile on a bit.

The people you're managing, your subordinates, their job is not to read and reply to e-mail from you. Their job is to follow certain procedures and protocols that you are communicating through e-mail. So you reward or punish them as appropriate for their actual responsibilities. Does it really, truly matter to you whether they learn about the right way to get the job done by reading e-mail from you, chatting with someone else around the water cooler, or seeing messages in goat entrails?

DarlingBri also made a good point with trying a different method of communication. But I don't need to tell you it's a good point, since you marked it as such yourself.
posted by ymendel at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2010

The thing is that project management and supervision just don't work very well by email. That's why I'd pick up the phone and call them, or why I'd communicate the info via IM. My situation is the same way yours is -- I suspect all management situations are -- where when there's something to tell someone, they really need to get the information, and it's my responsibility to make sure they got it. That's why I carry around a notepad with each person's name on it and the three things I have to make sure to ask or tell them about at the next opportunity (usually a weekly check-in). Then I check them off. I know it seems like it would be so easy if people would just read their email and then reply "got it," but as you're discovering, people just don't work that way. I tried to manage by email for about two years, and it just clicked for me last year that for about two-thirds of the people I work with, email is not a good way to communicate with them. Even if they reply "thanks," they often didn't actually absorb what I meant. Hence, my own checklists and other modes of communication. Sorry, but I truly believe that this is just the way people and modern workplaces are.
posted by salvia at 10:59 AM on October 25, 2010

I, too, feel your pain, because I tend to answer e-mails promptly, and naturally I have the habit of expecting that everyone does the same. But everyone doesn't and that's where the story ends. Look at e-mail as a tool for you to be sure that you inform everyone in the same fashion, and to keep track of whatever you said. That's why it's helpful, and not because other people use it in exactly that same manner.

First I'd informally ask around whether other people perhaps find you to have a controlling attitude. Consider whatever you'll hear seriously. There is, in fact, not very much reason to suppose that, on a statistically significant level, your emails don't get received; it seems a little as if you want to rub into people that you'd like your messages to be read. Now if the situation as a whole depends on some sort of mutual benefit at all, it is in fact reasonable to assume that your mails, if important, do get read. In short: confront your worries before you confront people.

Then, if your aim truly is to do your job effectively and responsibly, you can't likely afford wasting energy by being grumpy about how everyone else doesn't comply to your idea of how something should be done. If your actual task were to educate everyone else to assume better work routines, you'd have to act, but not in this scenario.

So: You supervise about a dozen people, and this issue arises about every two weeks! There's nothing to stop you to take the phone after a few hours to check around whether people have brought themselves up-to-date. See it as a service to inter-office friendliness, and it gives you the chance to exchange some individual viewpoints as well (mileage may vary, I know). This will take you less than thirty minutes every two weeks, and then you can work on, instead of biting your nails.

[I know someone who re-sent a message to the organizer of a conference where he was a speaker several hundred times, because said organizer was a bit tardy with his e-mail response. In the hands of a self-righteous person, e-mail is a terrible tool]
posted by Namlit at 11:18 AM on October 25, 2010

I've gotten group emails from my supervisor too, usually every week, and they required a response. For the first few weeks, I'd read the emails and respond that I'd read and received it. Then, I'd start briefly skimming them and then responding with a "Got it, thanks"... and after awhile I stopped reading them entirely and replied only with my initials. I would open it, send the brief required response, close it, and carry on. Because that requirement said to me "I care more about managing you and your time than the quality of work you're doing."

Even if every single person on your team responded, you'd have no way of knowing whether or not they actually read it, let alone any IDEA whether or not they actually understand the new procedures or changes.

I like the conference call idea. My supervisor should have said: "Hi team, there have been some important changes in procedure/new developments so I'm gonna send you all an email detailing the changes/new info, and then let's have a quick conference call so we can go over it, just to clear up any confusion you guys may have or answer any questions." I would've thought "Oh we're having a conference call...I should probably read that email and know what the hell we're gonna be talking about beforehand." It would also make me feel like my boss cared about whether or not I know what I'm doing and that I did it well, not that I was being trapped in some email reply game.

Supervisors, managers, bosses all LOVE to replace actual, real human interaction with email. Please don't make that mistake. If it's necessary that your team understands the content of these emails, talk to them. Like people. They'll like THAT boss way better than the boss who demands meaningless responses.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 11:18 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

stoneweaverPoster: The e-mails I need a reply to go out maybe once every two weeks (generally about every 20 days as that's our publishing schedule). This is not me wanting to chat with them about it every time.

OK then as someone who was hard on your current procedure, let me make a suggestion about this current process and see if that will help. I am going to take you at your word that this is once every two weeks and not once every other day.

Send the email to and from yourself. Use the BCC box to blind carbon copy every team member so that each reply to you does not go to the entire team. Title the email distinctly, uniquely and uniformly:

[REPLY: PROCEDURE CHANGE] BlueWidget Deadline Schedule

Start the email with a friendly statement along the lines of:

Please reply with a simple confirmation that you have read and understand the attached changes as they pertain to next week's schedule by tomorrow. If I've not heard from you, I'll ping you by IM.

I would have a maybe 75% compliance rate with this. I would still hate it but its as unobjectionable as an email system could be.

However, I didn't know about tools like Basecamp and Teamwork. I'm going to look into those to see if they will solve the problem.

It will centralise and change the way you work and may eliminate rather than solve the problem. I would vastly prefer to have a repository of documentary information I was responsible for being on top of and an alert when it was occasionally added to. This also means you can pull the "Look, every update you need for the BlueWidget project is on TeamWork, neatly filed and explained. All you needed to do was click a link to read it. You clearly didn't. What exactly is the problem here?"

FWIW I prefer Teamwork to Basecamp.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:29 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you all so much for your help! My next e-mail is coming up on Thursday and I was already dreading the frustration of bad communication, hence this AskMe. I'm going to try doing a group IM to see how that goes, and investigate the other solutions as long-term fixes. People generally set their own hours, so I'm going to ask around to see what people think of having a set time for a conference call. I don't think it will be the optimal solution for everyone, but it might be nice every couple of months. I am really excited about Teamwork and Basecamp, which both look like they could insta-magic my woes away AND make things easier for the people on the other end, which would rule.

Again, I really appreciate the time everyone took to chip in a few words. I imagine that I was rubbing a few of my writers the wrong way, even though I felt like it wasn't very often. Not good! Thanks for helping me see it from their end.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:11 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

People generally don't respond to group emails, consider addressing one person specifically and calling them the "point man" or "champion" for that task/issue.

This makes it clear who you expect a response from, otherwise people assume someone else will answer.
posted by oblio_one at 5:44 PM on October 25, 2010

I definitely think you need to have a conference call and/or video chat. An in-person meeting is really the best, but that may not be feasable in your situation.

One of the departments that I work with is comprised of account reps who work in the field (some over an hour away from the main office), and communication can be difficult. They have meetings every other Monday, and it makes sure that everyone is on track and getting all the correct information. I don't think that a short conference all ever two weeks is unreasonable. Getting some "face time" with everyone helps you feel like a team and helps everyone feel connected to the home company.
posted by radioamy at 5:53 PM on October 25, 2010

Try mailchimp - send it out as a newsletter, and you can see exactly who opened and didn't open the email, and it's free.

For actually getting people to read it? Make it a requirement for feedback - tell everyone you emailed that you need them to reply within X time with a suggestion (positive or negative) to a problem/question posed in it. Or for the next newsletter.

For single emails, I label in gmail anything I've delegated to someone as pio-name, so I can pull up all the emails related to that person and run down what's outstanding from them. Gmail makes it relatively easy to filter, e.g pio-Jane + novdinner. Once it's resolved, I take their name label off the mail.

Remote working requires you to be very results oriented because you're not there physically to see what's happening. Reading something is very passive, so you need to add some kind of interactive response to measure it.

With policies, part of our guidelines is adding a quiz at the end so that people can self-test whether they've understood what's in the policy.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:18 AM on October 26, 2010

Go get a free campfire account, set up a chat room per writer, and cc the campfire's chatroom on every email you send out. The writer will get an actual email and be accountable for the content in their "room" which was posted automatically...

An alternative setup would be to use basecamp and have each writer be email notified of updates for their "workspace". All you would need to do is send an email to the writers workspace
posted by schindyguy at 10:43 PM on October 26, 2010

Y'all are amazing! Here's what I did:

I sent out an e-mail letting everyone know that responses to group e-mails weren't necessary unless they needed clarification or I had specifically requested a response for a specific reason. I just sent out my very first e-mail yesterday that I really absolutely needed to hear from everyone on, and they all responded. It was like a miracle! I had the responses in hand within 10 minutes of sending it out. By not worrying about the little stuff so much, I got rewarded with a response when it really mattered to know that everyone was on the same page. Hurrah!

Thanks again to everyone who contributed.
posted by stoneweaver at 3:22 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

huzzah! I love it when we're right.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:58 PM on November 12, 2010

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