September 25, 2014

To CC or Not to CC 

Joshua Kim on his Technology and Learning blog:

CC too many people and you overwhelm inboxes, burn your opportunity to get attention for your messages when you really need it, and risk appearing as a tushy covering lackey. CC too few people and you run the risk of failing to share information, failing to keep colleagues in the loop, and failing to live up to the cultural norms of either hierarchal or egalitarian workplaces.

Email is great for communicating because it’s ubiquitous and flexible. But it’s a huge time sink because every email arrives with equal importance: most people get emails from their boss, emails from their spouse, order confirmations, and newsletters all in the same inbox. We then have to make a thousand decisions about what to read, reply to, archive, or delete. It can be overwhelming.

Gmail has tried to fix this with inbox tabs and priority inbox. Services like SaneBox, which I use, will do automatic sorting of email on most providers (not just Gmail).

But these technologies don’t solve the fundamental problem: every person has to sort through their own inbox somehow. Messages with lots of CCs or BCCs multiply this problem, as a single message creates organization work for every person who receives it.

This is a big reason why some organizations use project management software like Basecamp, which enforces some structure on work communication.

But project management software creates its own set of problems. People will forget to use it (or refuse) and send emails, or will use it incorrectly. 100% adoption is necessary for it to work well.

So if CCing everyone sucks, and project management software creates its own problems, what can we do? One company (Stripe) has a creative solution: complete email transparency. The tl;dr is that they have a bunch of email lists everyone can access, and by default all company emails are sent to at least one list.

This solves the tension Josh writes about in his blog post (quoted above) between flooding inboxes vs. excluding coworkers from discussion. Messages are automatically organized by email list, so it’s easy for each person to choose what they want in their inbox. Everyone can access all the lists, so no one is left out. Senders can prioritize messages for specific people by simply including their personal email address in the TO or CC field along with the appropriate email list address.

If I were running a company, I would adopt Stripe’s email transparency system along with company-wide chat like Slack as the official ways to communicate.


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