After almost ten years researching the use of workplace email as a daily communication tool, I wanted to take the opportunity to step back and take stock of how things have progressed in workplace digital communications.
Even a decade ago, commentators were predicting the impending demise of workplace email, suggesting it would be supplanted by other killer applications, such as instant messenger or social media.
Despite the growth in these applications, workplace email has proved to be the John McClane of digital communication methods; not only does it die hard, it gets stronger every year with rapidly increasing user numbers and more traffic than ever.
In this instance, we will focus on the CC function. This almost insignificant little feature included in all email systems may not immediately jump out as a factor in workplace email use, but it is in fact one of the most insidious tools that can be used, or easily misused.
To illustrate this, we will compare its use to equivalent human interaction to see if it is actually appropriate.
This is what the CC function is supposedly for. It was designed as an opportunity for a sender to drop somebody a little FYI to keep them in the loop.
Sounds like a really good idea, provide someone with some information that they may need to know but do not really need to act upon. However, this use is packed with the potential to damage workplace relationships.
Imagine you are invited to a conversation with colleagues. When you arrive they turn to you and tell you that whilst they have invited you to the discussion it is only really for your information; you do not need to take part, your opinions are not really valued and you may not really need to know what is being discussed.
A CC workplace email is exactly the same; if you want to include someone in a conversation then do so, address the message directly to them and let them participate, or risk losing their potentially valuable input entirely.
The show off
This use of the CC function can easily come across as unpleasant. A colleague sends an email to the boss, and copies in his colleagues to crow about something amazing they have done.
Would you go to a meeting with the boss and your colleagues and openly talk about how amazing you are in front of them? This would be the equivalent of putting everyone in the “To” box on an email.
Someone wants you to do something, and in order to apply additional motivation they copy your boss into the message. This is up there with wastage and receipt of irrelevant things in terms of the most annoying email behaviour.
Some users suggest that this type of behaviour demonstrates a singular lack of respect, and others feel that it actively damages their working relationships.
Imagine it like this; a colleague asks you to meet them to discuss something that they want you to do, perhaps you are already a little late doing it or they just want to impress upon you the importance of doing it.
The meeting place is outside your boss’ office door, the conversation is conducted very loudly so there is no doubt that the boss heard, and everyone knows the boss now knows.
It is quite obvious why this type of thing upsets people, but how does the boss feel? A good question, so I asked a number of managers what they think of this behaviour. The general feeling was along these lines “if somebody has a problem with a person that I line-manage, tell me!”
The CC function in workplace email; useful tool or insidious little box that causes more damage than it does good? My research suggests the former.
In any working environment that stresses the value of quality workplace interactions and relationships, and believe me, regardless of where you work this is the case, anything that causes disaccord is a problem.
When you consider the things that the CC function is used for, and imagine them as face-to-face interaction situations, the outcomes are embarrassing and almost farcical.
So, what can be done?
In some workplaces I have engaged with in my research, the CC function has been disabled entirely. These enlightened employers believe that the only way to include someone in a workplace email conversation is to address them directly.
However, these employers are in the minority, and it would be hard to convince most that getting rid of the CC function is a good idea. We can, however, change our own behaviour to address these issues.
Ever since I started researching workplace email, one thing has been clear; if you want to use it effectively, think about what you would do if you had to communicate the message face to face.
Ben Silverstone is the course leader for computing and quantitative business at Arden University