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This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at www.employeerecommended.com.

E-mail has become the oxygen that fuels a large percentage of workplace communications. It's now a principal mode for interaction and communication, perhaps because it's simple, quick and on-demand. It can have its challenges, however, because printed words lack inflection, emotion and intention that can create questions when interpreted by the receiver.

High volumes of e-mail can feel like a heavy smog for some employees, making it difficult for them to breathe and think as they try to keep up with the pace of the information flow. The average employee gets 121 e-mails a day, with an average opening rate of 31 per cent. With that kind of volume, no wonder many employees struggle to keep up. One study found e-mails were a major source of stress, and when they were removed the study participants felt they were much more in control of their work day and off time.

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This microskill focuses on setting a group's e-mail etiquette protocol, to outline an approach to improve how e-mail is used and ensure it's not stressing out staff.

Email etiquette protocol

Working with your team and using the points below as a guide, create a one-page e-mail etiquette protocol. The goal is to maximize e-mail communication effectiveness and decrease useless and distracting e-mail communications.

Define when the team will use e-mail as a form of communication

Clearly define when e-mail will be used (such as general updates, simple questions, simple requests for assistance) and when e-mail will not be used (such as to express a concern, complicated questions that require context and history, or when the sender is angry or frustrated).

Set expectations for sending and responding to e-mails

Set your psychological e-mail sending and response expectations. This provides direction on optimal timeframes for writing, reviewing and returning e-mails. You want to make sure that if someone sends an e-mail at 6 a.m. or 8 p.m that staff know that they do not need to respond during their off hours. You also want management and staff to think twice about sending non-urgent e-mails outside of reasonable working hours. This will create clarity on the communications expectation outside of work hours. One protocol for after-work communication is putting in place a strategy that outlines when a message is actually urgent and needs attention shortly. It could be as simple as adding the word "Important" at the beginning of the e-mail subject line.

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However, it's the manager's responsibility to enforce this standard and inform others how his team is working if this is not a company-wide policy. If this is the case, perhaps others will follow this lead.

Define internal and external response time standards

Standardize the team's service level agreements for responding to e-mails. This can help ensure peers can count on team members to respond to their e-mails like a client or senior manager, to level the communications playing field. For example, the policy could that staff respond to peer requests within 24 hours, unless they are offline.

Determine how the subject line will be maximized

Determine with staff how the e-mail subject line will be used to pre-frame a message and ensure clarity by indicating its core purpose and importance (such as Urgent, No response required, or Within three days).

Determine when and how the cc: function will be used

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Set standards around the use of the cc: function to cut down on e-mails being sent to those who aren't really involved in an issue. Be clear on the guidelines regarding when and why a person would be added to an e-mail string. Also, set the cc: respondent's expectation, such as cced individuals do not need to respond unless asked a specific question in the e-mail and that all side conversations will remove the group of people in the cc: list.

Agree on the team's basic e-mail structure

Define a structure as to how the main body of the e-mail will be set. This structure will help the reader move quickly through the e-mail to understand what they need to know and if they need to be called to action.

a. Lead with a punchline of what the person writing is looking for or what they want to share.

b. Follow with facts and rationale.

c. Use bullet points to break up text so it is easier to read quickly.

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d. Set a word count maximum, such as 500 words.

e. If a message and detail need more space, create an attachment. Word documents are easier to file and edit or comment on, by tracking changes. This can cut down on long e-mail strings.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link: http://tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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