What your emails can tell you about your changing behaviour
The most effective behavioural change is where we don’t even know it’s happening. It’s that feeling where you look back and think, ‘I can’t believe I used to do that.’ The small nudges in your behaviour create a significant shift that’s become embedded in your daily actions and your identity.
Email helps us look at how our behaviours have changed at work and home over a couple of decades. As technology changes how we work, the way we approach email highlights how those nudges are ingrained into our social identity.
We are going to look at what leadership teams can take from this when it comes to implementing further behavioural change.
The humble email signature started life as a way to sign off your emails. It would include your job title, company and a phone number. Then not much else.
Its hidden secondary use took off when we all became aware of how wasteful printing is. At which point, you’d start seeing email signatures asking you politely to “please not to print this email unless necessary”. Nowadays, it seems anathema for most people to print any email. In a short space of time, we’ve gone from needing hard paper copies of our online communication, to not. Changing our habits and auto-behaviours along the way.
And so our email signature use continued to evolve.
Today, an email signature is a marketing opportunity. Most people use email that can cope with HTML coding. Organisations can add branding flourishes such as images, video, social media tags and a call to action.
We have gone from a simple, one-line signature into a signature that can let your recipient know what you are promoting, your working schedule and even when they might expect a reply. More on this later, when we look at how email etiquette has changed over the years.
The changes within email signature also reflect the changes in how we understand and operate within our new online world. Two years ago, few people will have heard of GDPR. But now you can find links to how your data is stored and used from the bottom on email. And you will be familiar with legal disclaimers and terms and conditions included in the bottom of professional emails.
Another change within our email signatures is the inclusion of how we identify. Explicitly stating your preferred pronouns within the email signature is a relatively new phenomenon and its inclusion, or absence, is a way in which we are identifying with a particular social group.
Out of office
Before the advent of the smartphone, an out of office exists to let you know that the person you emailed is not going to reply until they are back in the office.
But now, we can check our emails on the go, from home, a meeting or on holiday. The consequence is that how and when we use our out of office is defined by the culture of the team. Even being encouraged to use one at all.
Some organisations perceive an out of office is seen as a lack of commitment to the job. If you can check your emails from your phone, why would you leave hundreds to build up while you’re away?
Compared to teams who put on an out of office for every time they are away from their desk. Whether that’s for a meeting, because it isn’t their working pattern or that they are on holiday.
Then there are cultural decisions around the email message itself. Some teams will prefer straight email messages. While it has been known for staff to send comedy email responses, the out of office is a way to establish the social identity of the team.
And it is important to note that leaders help the team understand what is acceptable. As a leader, if you prefer your team to leave a useful out of office, then make sure you provide the model for what good looks like with your own.
How we approach email entirely has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Around the turn of the millennium, people were checking emails once or twice a day. Phone calls were more prevalent, and very few people could check their work emails outside of the office.
By 2016, people were checking emails on average 15 times per day. And now, we are likely to check our email and chat apps once every six minutes. Almost three-quarters of the 132 billion emails that are sent daily are opened within six seconds. And 84 per cent of people keep their emails open all day.
That is a huge shift in how we do things in a short space of time. And it increases the expectation on us to respond instantly without ever been told to do so.
We do know that if you, as a leader, check and respond to emails outside of work time, then your team will do, too. They look to you to provide the blueprint for how things are done within the team. This establishes the prototypicality of the group.
Prototypicality is when the social identity guides what actions people should take. When it comes to email, it could be whether you have informal chats on other communication tools like Slack or WhatsApp, or if you hit reply all to a group message.
Likewise, the prevalence of read-receipts has changed over the years. What was once an easy way to see if someone had read your email, is now defunct as we assume most people instantly see our emails.
Behavioural Change within the team
We can learn from the small nudges within work email to implement more positive changes within the team. If you’d asked your team member back in 2000 to check their email every six seconds, including when they were at home, they would have probably asked when you expected the work to get done.
Yet, technology has made this change easier to accept over the years. Likewise, many of the marketing avenues we use didn’t exist even ten years ago, and now they are a normalised part of email signatures.
What you, as a leader model for your team, become the norm within the identity and eventually part of the culture. By making small incremental changes to the culture, you are setting the foundations for the long term change you want to see within your team.