Before You Click Send: How Better Emails Build a Culture of Great Asynchronous Communication
Updated: Aug 11
Nearly every animal advocacy organization we work with is entirely remote or distributed. One of the big implications of this setup is that these companies rely on a lot of asynchronous, written communication – especially email.
There are many benefits to asynchronous communication, including increased opportunities to craft a thoughtful message, refer back to information in the email later, and avoid the horrors of cross-time-zone scheduling. And yet, many of these wonderful benefits vanish when email is written poorly.
All too often, messages are long, confusing, and overwhelming, resulting in too much time spent writing, reading, and waiting for email replies. This problem is compounded for neurodivergent people (e.g., folks with dyslexia or ADHD) and/or people who work using a non-native language.
In this article, we break down the key elements of effective email communication in the workplace that’s easy (and maybe even fun) to read and act on.
For better remote communication, let’s start with the very top of the email.
TO: Whenever possible, include only one person in the ‘to’ field. In this way, you make it clear who is responsible for replying and taking action. Paradoxically, the more people are added to this field, the less likely anyone will be to respond.
CC: These are the folks who don’t need to take action. Consider it the ‘for your information’ (FYI) field.
BCC: People you add here will see your email but will not be included in any replies (since the TO and CC folks won’t see that they’re included). The BCC field is a glorious and generous field to use to protect people’s inboxes from unnecessary email. Here are two common instances of a kind way to move someone from TO or CC into the BCC field:
Introductions: Thanks for the introduction, Roxana! I’ll take it from here. I’m upgrading you to bcc to spare your inbox.
Collaborations: Since Hakim’s part of the project is done, I’m shifting him to bcc. (Hakim, if you prefer to stay on cc, please let me know!)
To Person taking action
Cc Person who might need to know
Bcc No longer needs to be part of the conversation
Next up is the subject line: a small bundle of words revered by marketers and ignored by nearly everyone else. To increase the odds of your emails being read, answered, and found again later when people need them, stick to the following email best practices:
Keep it specific: Imagine your little email adrift in the flooded sea of someone’s inbox. Ideally, just by glancing at your subject line, they should get a good sense of what you are writing to them about. For example:
A specific subject
Question about payroll
Question about Oct 18 payroll
Urgent request for intro
Urgent request for intro to Eliza
By Jan 14: complete survey
Due dates: If there is a due date, put it right in the subject line (preferably the beginning) so your recipients don’t miss it.
Code words: Come up with subject line code words to use with your team or entire company (e.g., FYI, Urgent, Due Date) for even faster inbox sifting.
Keep it on topic: Sometimes an email about one topic morphs into a conversation about another topic. In this way ‘subject: holiday party’ can easily become a discussion about your performance assessment system.
These kinds of double-stuffed emails are at risk of being hard to find just when you need them later. And when you contact someone with two (or more) requests, you’ll slow down their response if they can answer one part of your email but not the other. Here are some sample ways to avoid these messy messages:
Send multiple emails: I’m eager to hear your thoughts on two things. To keep our threads organized, I’ll include my question about Thing 1 here and send a separate email about Thing 2.
Free the topic: I’m noticing we’re two separate topics here. So we can stay organized, I’ll respond here about the event and send my thoughts about the policy in a separate email shortly.
Change the subject line: Looks like the topic of this conversation has changed, so I’m changing the subject line so it’s easy to find in the future!
Last but not least, let’s touch on some email etiquette tips that will make your messages easier and more delightful to process.
Start with action: Do you have a request or question in your email? Do everyone a favor (yourself included) and move it to the top of the email. In this way, you’ll make it more likely that people notice it and take the action you need. For example:
It was great to see you at the retreat! As you probably know, our team worked really hard to make it a good experience, and we have another company retreat to plan for January, so it’s really important to us to hear your feedback. Would you be up for filling in this survey by Friday June 15 at 5pm ET? You always have such creative ideas, so we’d really appreciate hearing from you. I remember you suggested we do an unconference next time, so any suggestions like that are welcome.
Thanks so much!
It was great to see you at the retreat!
Would you be up for filling in this survey by Friday June 15 at 5pm ET?
As you probably know, our team worked really hard to make it a good experience, and we have another company retreat to plan for January, so it’s really important to us to hear your feedback. You always have such creative ideas, so we’d really appreciate hearing from you. I remember you suggested we do an unconference next time, so any suggestions like that are welcome.
Thanks so much!
TLDR: For particularly long emails, consider starting your messages with a Too Long Didn’t Read (TLDR) summary. For example:
TLDR: We’re changing our team meeting format to include (1) rotating facilitators, (2) agendas, (3) video recordings. Read on for details!
Precise action: To make your action items even more likely to spark action, include specific due dates, including date and time.
Leave white space: Big blocks of text can be challenging to read, especially for people with processing challenges. Instead, break up your text with plenty of white space. You can do this through:
(See what we did there?)
Make terms and dates clear: Avoid misunderstandings and create an inclusive environment by communicating in ways everyone is likely to understand. For example:
By 5pm ET on April 19
People Operations Department
Piece of cake
Not my cup of tea
Not my preference
Warm it up: We tend to perceive the tone of written messages as more negative than spoken messages. Add a human touch to your emails with:
Expressions of gratitude
You can start getting better email results immediately simply by becoming a great email role model. And you can make an even bigger impact by sharing these best practices with your team or entire company. Come up with email norms you can all commit to and incorporate it into your onboarding plan.
A culture of better emails helps companies do better for animals (humans included).
BONUS! Before You Click Send: The Great Emails Checklist:
Do I have only people who must take action in the ‘to’ field?
Have I included the right people on ‘cc’ who should be informed?
Would it be helpful to move someone to ‘bcc’ to spare their inbox?
Is it clear what the message is about?
Will this message be easy to find in the future?
Have I included the due date, if needed?
Am I including just one topic per email?
Is the subject line still relevant?
Is the action item clear right away?
Is there enough white space to make the message easy to read (e.g., breaks, bullets)?
Can I cut or shorten any text?
Are any dates and times precise?
Are any terms unclear or ambiguous?
Do I come across as a warm human?