The PEMBAway: How We Handle E-Mail

Every quarter, we have a retreat here that we call the PEMBAway. We break out of our usual pattern for a bit, turn off the phones and the computers, and talk about important stuff. The title of this retreat is a play on words, really: It’s like “PEMBA away” and the “PEMBA way” all rolled into one. We’re away, and while we’re out we find and define our way.

“Our way?”

Well, the PEMBA way isn’t always the same way as what others might do. We do some things different. Some of y’all have noticed, and have asked. So, here begins a series of blog posts on what we do, and why:

Today started off with a bang – Our friend Elizabeth Castro (@Eliz_Castro on Twitter) posted an update on Facebook:
[Elizabeth C. Castro] wants to ask everyone what are their communications pet peeves at the office. Things like:
  1. Getting copied on too many “reply all” emails;
  2. Getting an email about something that should have been said in person;
  3. Using office email for humor — is this appropriate?
  4. Formal versus informal discussions.
I’m working on a presentation, and as usual, look to my friends to help me gather scientific research.


Elizabeth got a number of great responses. There were so many – and they were so relevant to changes that we’ve made around here at PEMBA – we thought that we’d share the best of them, with our comments added:
[People who always hit] Reply All are the most irritating – especially when it is a broad question topic and results in multiple threads of answers over-lapping each other, and everyone loses track of where the conversation went. The third is the CYA email where subordinates cc me on a email of importance and consider that sufficient notification. If its important, you better come and talk with me about it!

FYI [My Employer] actually has disabled the ‘reply all’ function in our Outlook for all 1500-ish staff. NOT kidding!
Comment: By far the largest number of comments on Elizabeth’s string were about the dreaded “CC Everybody Maneuver.” Just don’t do it. (And bravo to the company that made it impossible to do it as a default!) What to do instead? We here at PEMBA use groupware such as 37Signals Highrise, Backpack, and Basecamp. This way, the people who need to know will know when they need to know, and be left alone, otherwise.
I also hate when someone forwards a chain of emails because you need to do something but you have to read the entire chain to figure out what it is. Just tell me in two sentences what you need me to do.
Comment: Around here at PEMBA, I’m probably the most guilty of this one. I get called on it almost every time. (This latter response is a culture that we’re trying hard to create here – call each other out so that we can all do better.) What to do instead? Assign a task that clearly references the original section of the original email. This way, the person knows what to do and can look up the original communication for context, and/or to clarify what needs to be done.
Using e-mail as if it’s snail mail (book-length, formal letters that take forever to write and even longer to read, and end with an action-item that’s indistinct: “So when you get a chance, get back to me on this.”)
Comment: This one was hard-learned for me, and definitely took some effort to put into practice. (Like a lot of writers, I sometimes fell in love with my own prose – I got over it.) Basically, if you want to write a letter, write a letter and send it; if you want to write a book, do it somewhere else. E-mail is better for other things. Within about five sentences, your e-mail should outline the reason for the contact and the expected outcome. Unless you’re emailing somebody you don’t know, you can also dispense with most pleasantries and chit-chat. Need longer? Call. Need Shorter? IM is best.
Massive Attachments. Not a big deal when I’m in the office, but if I’m a road warrior, I have to deal with downloads at slow hotel speeds or worse. But then most companies don’t have or don’t know how to use good file sharing systems.
Comment: We avoid forwarding large attachments whenever possible. What do we do instead? We use the 37Signals products to store large files, and if it’s something in active play we use Google Docs and our own iDisk.
Expected replies within minutes. People should not be expected to be glued to email. Use the phone or IM, if it’s time sensitive.
Comment: Hear, hear! ‘Nuf said. Well, except: Don’t forget text messaging. It works, too. (And I’ve been known to respond to Twitter DM’s pretty quickly, they say…)
People who lose email in their inbox (as in “too much email”)
The Inbox is not a to do list.
Comment: We all know when people can’t handle their email (and – Brother/Sister – we’ve been there with you, we feel you…) There are some tell-tale signs:

  1. They respond in batches (you get responses to a bunch of e-mails at once.)
  2. They respond in batches on weekends, vacation, or at 3am. (In other words, they are using “down” time to catch up.)
  3. They respond late to time-critical email.
  4. They respond late to time-critical email with a request to “remind me again what this was about.”
  5. They respond late to a time-critical e-mail without having seen the one from a week later that says, to whit: “Thanks, took care of this, no need to respond.”

The comments to Elizabeth’s post weren’t all negative, and they offered some good advice. We like this one:

  • Show people how to make best use of email.
  • Discourage people from CYA emails. This means building a culture where your A doesn’t need to be covered!
  • Encourage people to think BEFORE emailing.
  • Set appropriate expectations on response time.

Lastly, we didn’t make any of this stuff up. At best, we’re just good aggregators of best practices. In fact, we’ve picked up most of our ideas from the Tim Ferriss and 37signals approaches to email:

  • Send fewer emails
  • CC only those who can contribute or act.
  • Use groupware for most things.

All this stuff works, and – you know what – it’s also not perfect. So if you’re tempted to write a comment that sez: “Hey, there was that one time with that one e-mail…” Yeah, fair enough. You got us. (Likely, truth be told, you got ME…)

But here’s the thing: We drop balls, miss e-mails, show some of these same bad habits we call out here, and all that. But we’re trying to change. The CYA culture, described above? (Cover Yer Ass…) Well, that’s a management structure we’re moving away from, also.

Basically, here at PEMBA we’re not going to manage problems. Instead, we’re going to provide solutions. Problems happen because we’re all human and we all make mistakes. When problems come up they need to be solved. We can’t prevent every problem from happening, but we can effectively solve them – quickly – when they come up.

That’s our goal, that’s our way. More soon. Stay tuned…

For more info, read: The Four Hour Workweek and Rework.

4 responses to “The PEMBAway: How We Handle E-Mail

  1. avatar David Sweeney

    When replying to an email or string of emails I always try to delete out the long string of signatures and just highlight the specific section I’m replying to.

    Which is kind of another aside / peeve.
    Long, multi-line signatures

    For example an address that takes up multiple lines:

    612 west main street
    suite 300
    madison, wi 53703
    skype: pembadavid
    p: 608.250.2400
    f: 608.250.3189

    Could be:
    612 west main street | suite 300 | madison, wi 53703
    skype: pembadavid p: 608.250.2400 f: 608.250.3189

  2. avatar Brad Werntz

    Oh, dang: That reminds me of another peeve – graphic signatures!

    Not only are they time/space hogs that wreck layouts on smart phones and take up room in cloud storage, they are non-dynamic. In other words, if your signature has a pretty picture in it instead of text, I can’t dial your phone – or map your address – with the click of a thumb.

    It’s a bummer, man.

  3. I second the recommendation of the book Rework, for business owners and employees alike. Simplification is the name of the game!

  4. Thanks for the Rework shout-out, Eryn!

    Another e-mail practice to consider: When sending out a newsletter or broadcast e-mail (“Hey, y’all should know about this…”) use a BCC or a group list. This way, if people reply all it only goes to you and to them instead of EVERYBODY.

    Also, it helps prevent SPAM.

    And, frankly, it can prevent some eye-rolling: Nothing like getting an e-mail that starts with “Because you’re so important to me I wanted to take the time to tell you personally,” and see that there’s a list of 300 people who also got the note.