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Avoid the Pre-Conference Call Email Hassle

You've been there -- It's ten minutes until the conference call or webmeeting starts and suddenly the email barrage begins: "do you have the latest version of the spreadsheet?" "What are we supposed to talk about today?" "I know you sent this to me but....." What's a manager to do?

Most of these recurring problems are caused by two things: version control (nobody's quite sure what version of what document they're supposed to be using) and poor email management (usually deleting an email or not filing it somewhere easily accessible and then not being able to locate it on demand). By using some simple tools and giving your team the guidance and leadership they need to develop good habits you can get big chunks of your time back.

Version Control
Tired of sending a document out to your team and then having to resend it just before the call? There are a couple of simple things you can do and then insist your remote team integrate these best practices as well:

  • Use version numbers in your subject line and agenda when you send out a document, especially one that is subject to change, include the date it was created or updated. Put that date in the subject line so people can do a quick search for the right document. Refer to the date in your agenda ("we'll be looking at the budget we updated on 6-29") so people know which document to look at.
  • Use file sharing There are plenty of ways for you and your team to work together and keep documents straight. They can range from the complex and expensive to the simple and free. There are dedicated version management tools like Sourcegear (for complex projects and software coders) to simply having a shared file on the network labeled with your team's name. The point is that the rules are simple: when a team member wants to share a file, they name it with the date or version number and then alert everyone to its existence. No hunting through email boxes.... no accidentally deleting it
  • Don't enable non-compliance Here's where many of us fall down on the job. When we get that panicky "which version are we using?" email, it's tempting to just attach the latest version and hit send. If you're trying to create a team culture of self-reliance and manager sanity, this isn't helping. A polite " it's on the shared drive with the date ________" will let them know where to find it and send the message that they can be self-sufficient in the future.
Email Management
For something that is so integral to the way we work, it's astonishing how few people have actually ever received formal training on how to use and manage their email effectively. I am hoping that when you read this you'll add your own best practice or tip to this post.
  • Create file folders and use them religiously Every major email program, from Outlook, Gmail and more allows you to create simple files that you can label, then stick to the system. It might seem obvious that the latest version of the budget might be filed under "budget", but it could just as easily be filed under "Jorge" (because that's who sent it) or "Miscellaneous" (because they don't have a budget folder and it was easier at the time).
  • New file = new subject line I can't prove it quantitatively, but my guess is that the number one reason for not finding the right document at the right time is that it's sent in a return email with another subject line. How could anyone NOT know that the latest capability presentation was attached to the email "Happy Birthday Bob"?
  • File and delete When you get an email, do you take the time to read it, understand what the appropriate action is and take it? Maybe, if you're David Allen or one of his GTD acolytes. Most of us mere mortals take a lighting-fast scan of the email, either delete it or respond immediately and then forget about it til it's buried in the 324 existing emails in our inbox. Take a few seconds to look at an email carefully, ask yourself "what should be done with this information?" and then actually take that step. It sounds obvious, but ask yourself, "how often do I actually do this?". The answer is a little depressing.
  • Put critical information in the agenda A complete and accurate agenda will help prevent pre-call questions, and if it doesn't you know people aren't reading the agenda (which is another challenge for another day). Make sure you put complete version numbers or dates in the agenda so there's no question what people should be looking for prior to the meeting.
The biggest thing you can do for your team is to find out what they're doing now. If you have chronic offenders, take the time to learn how they manage their email and documents. Share the best practices of your star performers and, most importantly, model the skills yourself.

Read more:

  • Re: 4 Tips for Managing Endless Email Threads
  • 4 Steps to a Team Communication Plan

photo by flick user Fletcher_Prince CC 2.0

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