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MIT Libraries Staff Web

Communication & Collaboration Resources: Email best practices


Love it or hate it, email is important to our work. While we have all been using email for decades, there has been considerable feedback from staff that things could be better. We have pulled together a list of best practices to help us get the most out of email to make our communications more effective. Many over time have discussed this topic; a simple Google search proves that out, now it is our turn.   

1. Before you write an email

  • What is the purpose of the message?
  • What would you like recipients to know or to do as a result?
  • Is email the best method to communicate? 
    • For simple questions, tools like Slack may be more effective.
    • If you are gathering information, consider whether an email thread will be the best tool. A quick doodle poll, Google form, or something else may be better.

2. Email vs. in-person communication

  • There are differences between written and in-person communication.
  • Much of in-person communication is through body language and tone of voice.
  • Body language does not happen in email, so we must make extra efforts with our voice and tone to convey the desired characteristics.
  • Therefore –
    • Hard conversations are best in person.
    • Communications that can easily be confused or misinterpreted are best face-to-face or via phone call.
    • Beware of delegation over email. 

3. Structure of an email

  • Include a clear, direct subject line.
    • People often decide whether to open an email based on the subject line.
    • People search for emails by subject lines; make yours searchable and findable. 
  • Your subject line should match the message.
    • Change the subject line when the core purpose of the thread changes.
  • Send or copy others thoughtfully.
    • Ask yourself if all the recipients need the information in your message.
  • Use caution with “reply all”.
    • Do not hit “reply all” unless everyone really needs to know.
  • Add the email address last.
    • This avoids accidentally sending message before you have finished writing or proofreading.
  • Attachments
    • Think about whether you need to include an attachment, or if you can direct people to a folder on Dropbox, the Wiki, etc.
    • Make sure the details of the attachment are meaningful – what is it, is it a draft/final/for review, etc.
    • If you are replying to the same person(s) that received the original message, there is no need to include the attachment.

4. Composing an email

  • Know your audience
    • Greetings, tone, and salutations should match the audience, familiarity, etc. When in doubt, keep it neutral.
    • Do the recipients of the email know you? If not, include a signature file.
    • Be aware that people from different cultures can speak and write differently. Miscommunication can easily occur because of cultural differences, especially in the written form when we cannot see one another's body language.
    • Avoid jargon unless you are certain that those you are emailing know it.
  • Nothing is confidential — so write accordingly
    • A basic guideline is to assume that others will see what you write.
  • Keep it short (when possible) and get to the point 
    • State the purpose of the email within the first two sentences.
    • Write concisely, with lots of white space. Feel free to use bullet points.
    • For longer messages, summarize at the top and follow with the expanded details.
    • Include links to refer to further documentation
  • Call out action items
    • Put action items at the top of the email - try not bury them.
    • If you expect a message to be forwarded to others, state this expectation explicitly. (e.g., “Department heads need to share with their staff.”)
  • Clearly indicate expectations for responsiveness
    • Tell people clearly, who needs to respond and what date you need a response by
    • Conversely, indicate if no response is needed.
  • Proofread every message 
    • Check use of humor, voice and tone, spelling, etc.
    • Make sure to insert attachments, when applicable

5. Responding to email

  • Respond to others in a timely fashion
    • Expectations for response time differ across directorates, departments or groups. Follow the appropriate norms of your area. If your area has no stated expectations for responses to staff communications, discuss with your team and see examples below.
      1. Set up an auto-responder if you are going to be out – letting people know when you’ll be back and who they should contact in your absence.
      2. Respond to non-urgent emails with a meaningful acknowledgment of the communication. Then follow up with a full response within 3-5 business days as per norm 10 of the Communication norms for FlexWork pilot.
      3. Respond to urgent emails (if labeled as ‘urgent’) within 1 business day as per norm 9 of the Communication norms for FlexWork pilot.
  • When forwarding an email to others – give context to clarify why the information may be relevant and what, if anything, is expected