Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England. This week: managing emails

Reflections on Thursday: messages from 15 different Whatsappers/Whatsapp groups, 65 work emails (excluding the 20 emails from LinkedIn and course providers that are diverted straight to a separate folder), 18 personal emails (only three 'focused' emails though - all from the school), 11 phone calls at work, three in the car and two actual text messages. The only people that text me now are my bank to tell me I am going overdrawn and the GP to remind me of appointments. 


The Whatsapp messages started at 6.16am and ended - well, they didn’t end, but I stopped looking at my phone when my eyes closed at about 9.30pm. I did, however, respond to another message when I got up to use the toilet in the night. I don’t have my work emails on my phone these days but in my previous job I would check my emails before getting out of bed and respond to what I could before getting to work, whilst dealing with - I might have mentioned it before - the very stressful time before we all get out of the door each morning which usually also involves me replying to messages from my friend Julie about defrosting chicken.

Unnecessary messages are the biggest problem for me at the moment. The chair of the PTA texts to see if anyone is going to a particular town that day to pick up a raffle donation. Ten mums message back to say no, they aren’t going that way. My goodness women, only text back if you are going that way! In another group chat a mum texts to say she feels guilty about something or another she did or didn’t do that morning. Eight mums message back to say she absolutely should not feel guilty. And nothing is worse, surely, than a Whatsapp group for a weekend away. My friend is, professionally, a very important person in the NHS. Personally, she’s hopeless. We’ve suggested she set up an online food shop for our weekend away and then let the rest of us check it and add anything she hasn’t thought of. The response we get to this is 'semi-skimmed or full fat milk?' There were literally over one hundred messages on that chat yesterday as she continued to seek confirmation from us on all food choices.

I have to keep checking my phone, of course, in case something important is actually happening - it is not like I can stick it in a drawer and ignore it- I have two small children in other people’s care.

I am involved in a large, complex matter at work where various surveyors, estate agents, structural engineers, solicitors for the other parties, family members, lettings agents, electricians, IHT case workers, colleagues in other departments, family dogs etc all email me, and copy me in to emails between themselves. In many cases I do not need to see these emails, but I have to read them to find out. I then have to print, file and save them to the case management system and decide whether I can and will record my time for glancing through them.

Emails come in from colleagues, about Christmas parties, or missing files, or payments that have been received without references. And one from my brother, containing just one word 'Christmas?' as he continues to badger me to confirm my plans.

Our HR officer emails me with a 'confidential' tag and it goes straight into my confidential folder. 'Oo-er' I think, stopping everything, only to find it is just a reply to a confidential email I sent her last week, and simply says 'OK thanks'.

Another problem with the Whatsapp groups is for every person that is added, the quality of the chat diminishes. Even with my two best friends, the conversation is a bit more superficial and sanitized than if I was speaking to them one to one. It lacks the feeling of confidentiality that comes with a normal conversation with a mate.

Then there is the risk. The risk that I respond too quickly and type in the wrong email address, triggering the need for a report to be made, by me, to our risk advisory team. The risk that my legal opinion in the five seconds after receiving an email was wrong, on further reflection, but the response has already gone. I don’t even want to talk about the risk that I message the wrong blooming Whatsapp group again. I have now been given two Twitter accounts for work and, having just had training on the new conduct rules, I am very aware that I am one tweet from the wrong account away from losing my job.

My client recently had a heart attack and blames it fully on emails. He was in property development and, he says, the pressure of responding to emails at all times of the day and night nearly killed him.

Unlike letters, or even phone calls that go through the receptionist, emails have a free pass to land right at the top of whatever is ‘on your desk’, beeping on arrival, and senders know that and expect a response more quickly than with other forms of communication. Don’t you love the client who phones to check you received his email? Your email distracted me from my real work and your phone call has distracted me from responding to your email.

So what to do? Send fewer messages for a start! But perhaps we should have an email policy in our firms. To only email if needed, not to copy people in or click 'reply all' unless it is essential, stop sending firm-wide emails and use the intranet instead, have some training on Outlook rules and colour coding your emails. In the same way that my personal email account has automatically started telling 'focused' and 'unfocused' emails apart, I’m sure we could tell Outlook to do the same. Does anyone limit the time they have their inbox open for during the day? Would opening it for an hour in the morning and the afternoon help? Does anyone send an automatic reply saying the email has been received and will be dealt with in turn? All tips gratefully received (feel free to send them all by email to the editor).