How to Create Team Harmony with an Email Protocol

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Tiny teams can work fine for years with purely informal communication — called “mutual adjustment.” This is shown when two friends wash dishes together without needing to speak a word. They both understand the task and can observe each other’s actions. Each adjusts to the other person, and to the needs of the shared task, quite fluidly and effortlessly. This form of teamwork is both pleasant and bonding.

two people arguingThis is why team growth can be unpleasant. Increased team size leads to increased specialization; this places a growing burden on communication and coordination, but the team members haven’t yet learned how to meet this need for themselves. As mutual adjustment fails to work, its pleasure and bonding vanishes, and is replaced by frustration, ball-dropping, and finger-pointing.

When team size grows above 4-5 members, mutual adjustment always fails (except where tiny sub-teams spring up). Team members must either communicate and coordinate through direct supervision of a single mind, or they must formalize their work. No other options exist.

Nowhere do we see these coordination and communication struggles more starkly than in frustrated email exchanges between members of a growing team.

The Email Protocol

Most of these email struggles can be avoided with a simple formalization — a clear email protocol.

An email protocol consists of a few simple, shared rules that govern how the team uses email to communicate key facts. The protocol provides a shared context for those emails, reducing ambiguity.

Below is a sample protocol to get you started. Create your own protocol that answers these same basic questions:

  • What Will Subject Lines Contain?
  • What Does CC Mean?
  • How Quickly Will Emails be Answered?
  • How do we Differentiate between Requests and Information?
  • When Will We Not Use Email?

Modify this protocol with your teammates and create a shared agreement. Enjoy the improved coordination that results.

What Will Subject Lines Contain?

We agree that subject lines will contain a short summary of the point or request being made. If a response is required or an action is being assigned, the subject line will start with the words “Action Required: ”  followed by the action needed.

Repeat the words Action Required in the first line of the email together with the name of the person who must act, as shown in this example (the subject line is boldface):

Subject: ACTION REQUIRED: Tom please book the room for Tuesday

(first lines of email follows)
FYI – Tess, Steve

Dear Tom …

It follows from this rule is that we agree to send one email per topic. If we’re changing topics, we’ll change the email subject line.

What Does CC Mean?

We use the CC field to list people who are being informed of something and who have no identified action required. In the example that follows, Tom must act, so Tom will be in the To: field. Tess and Steve are being kept in the loop, therefore Tess and Steve will be in the Cc: field.

(email header)
To: Tom
Cc: Tess, Steve
Subject: ACTION REQUIRED: Tom please book the room for Tuesday

(first lines of email follows)
FYI – Tess, Steve

Dear Tom …


How Quickly Will Emails be Answered?

We are committed to giving each other space to work in our jobs and live our lives without unneeded urgency. Therefore we will give each other ample advance notice of requests as often as we can.

Therefore, we agree to answer emails within one business day (24 hours). Emails received at 4 PM on a Friday will thus be responded to by 4 PM the following Monday. This requires us to ask for the help we need at least one to two days in advance of needing it.

When faster response is needed, we will call or text each other. We agree to work to minimize how often we make urgent requests.

How do we Differentiate between Requests and Information?

The first 1-2 lines of each email will indicate who needs to act and who is being informed, as shown in boldface in this example:

Subject: ACTION REQUIRED: Tom please book the room for Tuesday

(first lines of email follows)
FYI – Tess, Steve

Dear Tom …


When Will We Not Use Email?

We won’t use email in these circumstances:

  1. When a response is needed sooner than 1-2 business days
  2. When the subject is likely to be emotional or difficult
  3. When we’ve exchanged two emails already and aren’t getting anywhere

In such cases we will call or visit face to face. We agree to make ourselves available for such calls and visits.


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