Tag Archives: Email

Getting to grips with effective time management

Managing your time in a busy office can be an insurmountable task in and of itself. In this post Dyfrig Williams looks at the changes he’s made to the way that he works.

A change in personal circumstances has recently meant that I’ve been working more from home. Not my home in Cardiff, but my partner’s home in Exeter. Kelly is an incredible writer, so instead of outlining how this started, I’ll signpost you to her fantastic post on our relationship and digital romance.

At this point I feel that I’ve got to say that I’m incredibly lucky to be working in an organisation that has helped me to balance my work commitments with my personal life, and also that I’m fortunate to work within a fantastic team who are incredibly supportive. Project wise, everything has been pretty seamless. This might be because we’re already geographically dispersed – Beth lives and works in North Wales and currently half of Chris’ working life is spent on secondment with Bangor University. Fortunately for us, Ena also works incredibly hard from our Cardiff office.

What I’ve learnt

A photo of Dyfrig Williams' calendar, which shows Trello notifications

My calendar, which is integrated with Trello

Remote working has its challenges, but it’s enabled me to rigorously examine how I work. To put this into context, I’m so disorganised that I’ve been on two time management courses. Neither of these changed anything, and I’m not convinced that a training course was the most appropriate way to solve the issue. However I’m also acutely aware of my weakness, so I set up systems and processes to help me combat my poor organisational skills. I now set up a Trello board for each topic that I work on, and the Wales Audit Office’s recent upgrade to Office 365 means that I can sync these to my Outlook Calendar so that I have regular updates when tasks are due.

More than anything, working from home has highlighted just how much time I waste during the day. I’m a firm believer that social media should be social, so I log on to our work accounts a few times in the day to learn from others and share key messages. However my defacto purpose was to undertake the fun and social learning that I love, and to avoid some of the more monotonous yet essential tasks that keep the Good Practice Exchange’s show on the road. Cue some difficult conversations with myself. Now I’m focusing my work around effecting change and evidencing outcomes.

The Herculean task of managing emails

I’ve asked a fair few members of our staff how they would like to hear about changes to our systems for our Cutting Edge Audit project. A fairly typical response was that email was probably best, but that staff are facing an avalanche of them. I don’t think we’re alone in facing this challenge – Halton Housing found that their average employee spends 40% of their working week dealing with internal email that adds no value to the business before they switched off their internal email.

One person I spoke to questioned how people had the time to go on Yammer. What I’ve found interesting is that people see a clear distinction between two modes of conversation that could both be used for the same purpose. Answering email sometimes seems to be an end in and of itself. Surely it’s distracting us from productive work in the same perceived way as Yammer does? I used to have my inbox open all day, which meant that I dealt with emails as and when they came in. I now only open my inbox a couple of times a day to answer emails. After all, no one emails in an emergency.

After reading Oliver Burkeman’s article on time management (which is also available as a podcast), I’m convinced that Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero, a rigorous approach to email that aims to keep our inboxes empty, leads people into answering emails at the expense of real work. And as Burkeman says, “becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on”. So email becomes a default mode of communication, whether it’s appropriate or not. The crux of everything is that by managing email in this way “you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster”.

Should we ditch the office?

Working from home also means that I have two days free of meetings per week, which gives me plenty of opportunity to undertake deep work away from distraction. I’m a social animal so I’m not advocating a move away from social interaction. Basecamp’s No Talk Thursdays and Library Rules sound like hell to me. I’m a firm believer that we need people to emotionally invest and buy in to the work we’re doing, and enjoying work is a key part of getting work done. However tools like Doodle can help us to think about what time suits us as individuals as we opt in to meetings, instead of scheduling based on time available in our calendars.

To me, Basecamp’s approaches show that there’s no such thing as a blanket rule for efficient working. By happenstance I’ve been able to look at what I do and make adjustments based on what works in different environments. This has all been written from a personal perspective, and not everyone works in the same way. It’s important that we look at what these tools can do in the context of how they can make us more productive as teams and individuals.

I started off this post by talking about work/life balance and how the Wales Audit Office has facilitated that. To me, this is at the heart of time management. If you’re forever looking to be more efficient so you can cram more work in, then the likelihood is that you’ll be unable to avoid the stress that you were looking to combat. But if you’re instead looking to better balance your life, you’re able to ensure that you’re focusing your work where it has the most value. This approach has made my work more fulfilling, and I’ve been able to focus on my personal life and do more of the things that matter to me. I’m at the beginning of my journey and I’m going to see how this develops. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a one-size fits all approach, so if you’ve got time management tips that work for you, I’d love to hear from you.

Could you go without internal email?

Is email bound up in the future of the way we work, or can new ways of working help us to share information more efficiently? Dyfrig Williams spoke to Lee Mallon of Rarely Impossible to find out.

LocalGovDigital's Unmentoring Logo

We all know the feeling of returning to work after a holiday to find a mountain of emails waiting for us. I always have a nagging feeling that I need to get to grips with my emails before I can start with the “real work” that I have in front of me.

My colleague Beth recently blogged about the recent review of our Randomised Coffee Trials, which pair people randomly to discuss the topic of their choice.

Alongside that, I’ve been taking part in LocalGovDigital’s Unmentoring, which is their version of Randomised Coffee Trials. In my latest discussion I had the chance to see if email really is a help or a hindrance by catching up with Lee Mallon of Rarely Impossible, who have ditched email for all internal correspondence.

Why chat about email?

Email has some issues, and a lot of that is down to behaviour. Whether it’s sending unsolicited emails or a dodgy use of the cc function to justify a sense of importance (check out Chris Bolton’s series of posts on bad email practice), a lot of the problems that come with email are down to us as users. The latest Natter On podcast gives a good account of both sides of the Email: good vs bad debate.

Another issue with email is that it tends to focus on work that specific individuals do rather than teams. That’s where tools like Slack can potentially help, as the format encourages people to work in teams. Tools like Trello can also help – why don’t we just log in and check the current state of play instead of sending a long series of email updates?

That’s not to say that changing the means of discussion is an answer in itself. Adopting a new tool comes with its own issues. People may not be particularly happy about having another source of communication to check, and an informal work tool like Slack (which comes with Emojis and GIFs) may be an anathema to some organisations’ working culture.

But if society is changing, and people’s expectations of public services are changing, do we as public service providers need to change too? A lot has already been written about how we can’t continue to communicate in the same way when using social media (including Helen Reynolds’ great post on psychopathy and social media). Can we really connect with communities when our day-to-day staff communications are inherently different? There are already signs that young people are choosing to communicate through apps instead of email.

What are Rarely Impossible doing?

I found my conversation with Lee really valuable. Not only was he happy to share his experiences over the phone, but he was also happy to share resources afterwards. It was fascinating to hear about the channels they were working through after 6 months, and their “1 year on post” is a fantastic “How to guide” for reducing your reliance on email.

And in case you think that it’s one thing for a private company to go email free and quite another for a public service, check out the work that’s taking place at Halton Housing.

Although email is our current default means of online office communication, we’re in a fascinating time where new tools are being developed all the time. If your organisation is thinking of ditching email, we’d love to hear from you so that we can share the learning from your experiences and whether it’s helping you to deliver better public services.