#Connect: the art of a conversation

We need to talk.

Not just because it’s nicer, not just because it’s good to speak about non-teaching stuff now and then, not just because no one knows who you are in school because they still haven’t been able to match up your first name to your email initials (who IS GHJ?). We need to talk because the conversation is what moves things forward. Emails are my least favourite- but sometimes necessary way to communicate at work. I work part time, I come in at times before others or work at the opposite end of the school to the people I want to talk to, or when I am ready to talk, others may be busy and the time just doesn’t match up. On the whole, I try to use email sparingly.

The communication mastermind of the corporate world, email came prancing along as a mainstream business response to speed up communication, shoving fax aside, email originally took the form of an electronic letter in both format and formality. However, with the introduction of pagers, and text messages with what was previously a character limit (remember that? 10 p a pop), accompanied by a restriction of time but an increase of numbers, emails have become in some context, an alternative to a casual text exchange, and a far more definitive alternative to speaking. On paper, they appear to be a teacher’s favourite accompaniment: unable to leave a room for extended periods of time due to teaching classes, and often with timetables that can sometimes take weeks to align for meeting? Send an email! Right?

Not so much. Email is a key bugbear in schools, due to frequency, amount, person-environment fit and above all, the huge discrepancy from one school to the next on setting an agenda for all of these things. Stress sourced from emails is meta-present; there is a such a feeling of dissatisfaction from any text-based conversation and this can stem from either the way in which email is used, or just desiring fewer emails. Our biggest source of stress originates from factors outside of our control, so email definitely qualifies here. But is this really something that we need to consider? Are a few emails really that bad? (Spoiler alert: yes).

Cardinal sins of email:

Reply all: You’re arranging the best time for a meeting of twelve people, but don’t need to attend. But one person has replied all, instigating a back and forth exchange about whether the time proposed is actually the best time because Year 10 revision is that day and the London trip is due back at 4pm, not to mention it’s the same week as parents’ evening. None of that has any impact on your life, because you don’t need to attend, yet 14 email chimes later, and here you are, having to delete as you go.

Middle of the night: just to ensure that everyone knows David is still working that spreadsheet, and an email at 23.42 clarifies exactly how hard David has been working. He goes to bed at 23.43, thrilled that his email will be the first one you see in the morning. How exciting.

Every font variation to spice it up a bit: Peter has to send a great deal of dry, data-driven information that clarifies exactly how everyone isn’t adhering to the three-step programme quality assurance for Key Stage Three analysis. Peter remedies this by using a plethora of colours, underlined subtitles, extensive bullet points and eight sub sections, outlined with bold words for emphasis. Staff have started trying to create the resolution of an anagram from the twenty-three bold words, but the game wanes by the third paragraph.

Caps lock: Just caps lock. IN the subject heading. NO email body.

Collective punishment: Usually about dirty mugs. Often accompanied with a photo in case you didn’t believe them.

Delayed telling offs: ‘can you pop and see me in my room at the end of the day before you go home? Thanks.’ Just so you can mull over the content of said meeting for the entire day, with absolutely no indication as to whether it’s good, bad or requires tissues and/or a P45.

Emails that are sent to everyone but not everyone needs them: ‘Just for the teachers of Nathan Harris.’ Look up the teachers of Nathan Harris, for the love of all that is holy.

Emails to confirm what has been said: Emails to confirm meetings, in a cover-your-back approach to the workplace. Not minutes, just a confirmation of a chat. So, just to be clear, we had a chat. Like handing over a receipt to every verbal exchange you ever had, just in case that person claims in a month’s time, that you didn’t chat. Because you definitely did have a chat.

It would appear that this is quite the epidemic. An overlooked aspect of the workplace, a study carried out by the University of Loughborough found that the physiological impact of email included increased blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol rates and candidates identified perceived stress.[1] This was accompanied by additional wider implications of email abuse, with examples of management via email as opposed to face to face  meetings, social detachment of staff (which is hardly surprising if you’re not actually interacting with anyone outside the realm of a keyboard) and lots of emails to confirm discussions or meetings had taken place in a ‘cover-your back’ approach to duties[2]. In addition, email interruption took a greater than expected amount of time which impacted work productivity, an aspect somewhat overlooked by research study: if you are checking emails during lessons, because you feel there isn’t a choice, how is your teaching impacted as a result? If you are reading over a deadline-enforcing email at home, how might this affect your mood, or your ability to focus on other things as a consequence? A study carried out by the Future Work Centre found that, ‘there was a “strong relationship” between use of the “push” feature that automatically updates emails on devices as soon as they arrive and perceived email pressure:’ people feel compelled to check emails as they arrive, even if they know they aren’t required to do so.

The study identified that strategies implemented that didn’t actually address the core issues behind how email left colleagues feeling generated quick fixes but were not sustainable within a matter of months. More significantly, ‘email-free time’ did not provide a remedy to the stress levels. If anything, in the most toxic of schools with a high email count (a recent Twitter poll showed that on average, teachers received emails were in excess of forty a day), email-free time would just be putting off all the fleeting ideas or messages sat drafted in outboxes.

The corporate world sometimes boast up to 100 emails a day; my partner who is in a senior management position feels that around a third of the ones he receives daily are information only, although to what degree that information is essential, he couldn’t say, It is the ultimate in Fear of Missing Out: if someone didn’t send it to you, would you have needed to know it? More importantly, are they sending it to you to reinforce the, ‘cover-your back’ mantra that using email has adopted? Emails always come with a fierce argument on both sides: those who send say, ‘if you don’t want to know, don’t check’ and those that oppose say, ‘don’t send to begin with.’ Telling someone to simply be less anxious about the forty emails that they know are waiting for them at the end of a day teaching just doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

Can we assume that staff know how to email appropriately, and using strategies that will support workload, and subsequently, stress reduction? Worse still, can we ensure that the tone is being set correctly from the top?

How can we ensure that we use email in a way that helps and doesn’t hinder, and what can we do when it’s being abused in full defiance of the email etiquette?

Senior leaders: set the tone for your school and be explicit in your boundaries. What is your whole-school approach to email? If you want to make a valid and profound increase on productivity and colleague relationships, and a decrease in work-related stress, consider the guidelines you collectively adhere to as a school. Some examples:

  • Are there specified no-email points for staff once they leave work?
  • Do you have reasonable expectations or an allocated time so that staff can check their emails in good time for deadlines set? For example, if a member of staff teaches all day and only reads their email every 24 hours at 3pm, is this sufficient for them to act on everything sent in a timely manner? If not, what needs to change?
  • Are emails in your school concise, clear and as short as possible?
  • Are emails polite and positive in language?
  • Is email reserved for particular messages, and are other options available to communicate key messages, such as a staff noticeboard, T&L blog, student communications for tutors, calendared meetings, shared drives for minutes or updates (the possibilities are endless).
  • Do you speak directly with staff for those that misuse the guidelines, without resorting to blanket emails that chastise?
  • Are staff reminded of these key messages around email, so that you are regularly endorsing a really healthy email culture?

Daring to send an email?

Some questions to ask yourself:

Is this sent to the right person, at the right time, giving the right timescale for the right reason?

How would it feel to be the recipient of this email?

Remember you are a human being: if we start to distance ourselves from email as the sole method of communicating with other human beings, and remember our working body parts, the mouth, things start to become slightly fuller of humanity and simple human kindness. Not sound like anywhere you work? If your senior leadership team haven’t set boundaries for email, propose it! If you’re not quite there, then there are some measures you can take to ensure that as a serial recipient, your guidelines are clear to others:

Set an auto response to explain: you teach and so are able to check email sporadically but am to respond within two business days. I have found that this often resulted in follow-up emails to the first to say things had been resolved, or emails recalled where clearly the sender had reconsidered the fact that I wouldn’t be in a position to meet a two-hour deadline after all.

Call off the tennis match: Once the groundwork of an auto response has been laid, don’t fall into the trap of short back-and-forth emails to attempt to resolve something quickly. The quickfire exchange is scientifically proven to result in nothing except more confusion at best, and the need for a meeting at worst. These are what I like to call conversation replacements, and you tend to find that the face-to-face version is far less hostile, curt and usually more effective at moving towards a resolution.

Full attention: Avoid engaging in email responses when you are doing something else at the same time. Give someone’s concerns or queries your full attention, or schedule for a time that you are able to do so. If the reply will be any more than a couple of lines, give two options for a chat at a time that suits you. That way, you still control the demands of your working week.

An ideal world? That rather than shut down times, we work towards compiling an outline of the type of communication that email is suited for (key messages, sharing resources, cake) and work on making time available in schools so that any conversations are exactly that.

This blog is an excerpt taken from my soon-to-be-published book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing, which is available to pre order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-Talking-About-Wellbeing-Howard/dp/1912906481

[1] Marulanda-Carter, Laura (2019): Email stress and its management in public sector organisations. figshare. Thesis.
[2] Email stress and desired email use, Stich, Jean-François, Lancaster University, 2016



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