TechLines: Making Email Work Better For Work

Planning for our upcoming TechLines video event has got me thinking about how I'd like email to fit better into my work life. Here's five areas where I'd like to see improvements.

5. Better rendering across devices

HTML might be a default mail display standard of sorts, but rival email software still renders it very differently. Even when it works, often it's just meaningless decoration. I'd like to be able to click on a button in my messages to strip out all the formatting and just display the text — because, in my experience, that's where the real meat is. It would also be helpful if we didn't need to resort to weird formatting tricks when sending links to others.

4. Intelligent handling of time zones

Within Outlook, appointment times shift if you change the time on your local system or mail server — sensible if you're co-ordinating a meeting across multiple time zones, hopeless if you're entering your own details for (say) an overseas trip. Many other calendar systems have the opposite problem: you have to work out the time difference issues before you can schedule anything involving other people. OK, that's not strictly a mail problem, but given how integrated email and calendaring are these days, one can't be solved without the other.

3. Get rid of urgency tags

Someone who is efficient at replying to email is going to get back to you as quickly as is feasible. Someone who isn't will ignore your message anyway. At this stage, I find most emails flagged as urgent are anything but, so I think it's become a meaningless symbol, often deployed without any thought. Let's get rid of 'em all.

2. A choice about threading

If you use Gmail, you have no choice but to adopt to threaded conversations. If you use most other platforms, you have no choice but to view messages one by one. Given that email messages are essentially just information in a database, it should be possible to offer both versions, letting users switch as their needs dictate.

Outlook 2010 is one of the few email platforms that offers the option of switching between conversation and standard view (and even then, it sometimes makes a pig's breakfast of the job). Letting people choose from either version is an obvious step that hasn't been properly addressed by anyone yet as far as I can see.

1. Proper email training in the workplace

As we've noted many times before on Lifehacker, the biggest problems with email often aren't with the technology, but with how people use it. However, few businesses have any documented rules and procedures around email, or take time to explain them to new staff.

What are the expectations around how quickly replies should be sent? Which conversations should take place on email to ensure there's a record? Can alternative systems be used with the same archiving potential? The answers to these questions will be different for every business, but most businesses don't bother to ask them in the first place, or do so within a narrow compliance culture, not one that actually looks at making email a truly useful tool for productivity. That needs to change.

Got your own thoughts on how email could be better in the work environment? Share them in the comments, and we'll take note of them for the upcoming TechLines event in Sydney. If your comment really inspires us, you could also win a pass to be in the live audience for the event.


    I am new to the industry of engineering design (as an aside, why does Lifehacker never ever mention anything to do with AutoCAD?) and email is the second most important electronic tool in everybody's belt. It is also one of the most poorly used.

    * The un-organised, unprofessional look and tone of a message that is coming from a person/company you know/hope is anything but.

    * The poor implementation of the calendar integration on offer by the big email programs, sadly I instinctively hit the Dismiss button way too often because of it purely being there.

    * Attachments. Ugh. The amount of times you a) are waiting to receive or b) needing to send a document(s) that is over, say, 15mb to somebody is beyond a joke. Nobody apart from IT workers or enthusiasts understand the glacial upload speeds we have to contend with, this is 2010, not 1996.

    *Record-keeping outside of the program/main GUI. Currently we have a folder on our server to house all our important incoming and outcoming messages. They have to be opened, categorised, saved down as .MSG's and then the file name needs to changed or added to because the subject never makes sense as a file name (date/time and the sender of the message isn't carried over). There has got to be an easier way. Then, when going back and opening that email you are looking for, the program maximises itself in front of what you were doing anyway.

    I really started this post to give some suggestions but sorry Angus I had to get these things off my chest.

      I very quickly changed my company over to Web Calendar; the interface is a bit clunky, but we found there were a number of advantages over using Outlook's calendaring. I do agree with you about hitting the Dismiss button!

      I'm just wondering if it's a fact of life which we need to accept. My take on it is that given a country of our size, we subsidise our regional neighbours, and as a result, will never ever see faster upload speeds. What I found worked well for me was to either host the file on some place like Media Fire or Sharing Matrix, and let the other guy do the heavy lifting. Having a co-located server is a good if glacial speeds really frustrates you; it's still slow, but uploading to a local server IMO is a functional solution, especially when sending said 15MB attachment to many, many people.

      I haven't had much to do with Exchange recently, but if you're running Exchange Server, could you perhaps use Public Folders instead of your file server? As for the program maximising itself, to me it's an architecture thing, as opposed to Outlook being badly designed. Perhaps, instead of saving emails using the MSG format, saving them as text files (and opening with a text editor) could alleviate your frustration in this area?



      I made my email better for work by customising it to address some of the issues which you brought up - I automatically reply to read receipts, and hide priority tags, so it doesn't bother me : )

      You're dead right about email training sessions; it's weird that almost all companies have some sort of induction schema in place, yet don't cover this.

      As for HTML, I remember the days before the Web where text was all we had. It's really nice to be able to use formatting; I agree that the resulting display can often be a mess, but IMHO I'd take it any day.

      If one is bound to use Outlook, may I suggest a filter for all incoming mail to clear any Flags, and run a custom script ( for example) to strip formatting?

      As for suggestions: I can appreciate that many companies may still see IM as a recreational tool, I found that a lot of messages in my inbox (the giveaway being useless subject lines, or the entire message in the subject) would be better communicated via IM, leaving email for items which merit some form of storage. With a bit of education, I cut down on my Inbox clutter quite substantially.

    If you really want me to ignore your email, just attach a read receipt request (which will invariably be denied).

    why does clicking on the annoying flash animation for the upcoming live video feed keep bringing me back here:

    Yes i did eventually notice the tiny link within the text of Angus's introductory paragraph, but why make life hard for people?

    btw, why Thursday at midday? I will be hard at work fixing other people's computers. can we download the video later?

      Yes, the video will be available afterward for viewing whenever you like.

    Can't you arrange emails by thread in outlook 2003? I thought you can do it via [view->Arrange by->Conversation].

    BTW, is it possible to filter messages by selecting multiple 'categories' in outlook (just like how I do in Evernote)? Is similar filering possible wit Google?

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