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A few of my colleagues have a tendency of sending a variety of off topic emails, ranging from the usual "funny" stuff to serious, but still not work related stuff. I really don't like that, my inbox is extremely busy as it is, other than the usual work related emails I get a ton of automated emails, from our PM software, our build & deploy services and a couple other bots.

On top of that, I'm working remotely, and email is my main method of communication with the company. I could be deleting all the crap as they come, but that's not really a solution if they just keep coming. A messy inbox leads to messy search results, every time I don't delete a "funny" email, it just pops up in a search result six months later. Email search being as inefficient as it is, this becomes very tiresome after a while.

How can I, once and for all, put an end to the madness? Most of my colleagues are IT professionals, I feel that they should be very accustomed to email culture, and I really don't understand why any of them would feel the need to share the latest cute kitty picture they fished out of Reddit with the whole IT department, or why they don't just send it to my personal email. Working remotely also means that I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to one on one discussions.

Small clarification: "co-worker" includes management, up to the top of the hierarchy. Not the main culprits, but it's not unreasonable to think that they enable the behaviour by setting a bad example (once in a while).

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    Perhaps you could ask for the fun emails to be distinguishable from important mail? This will allow you to be able to delay opening the fun ones, and still be able to recognize important mail. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 3 '13 at 6:40
  • While funny emails make searching harder, lack of them doesn't make it easy anyway. The email box is a poorly searchable element, usually. The best way is to mark important stuff in some way (tagging, separate folders) rather then dealing with 'soft mails'. – user1023 Jun 13 '14 at 13:57
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    Sharing fun stuff is important for a nice atmosphere; the problem in here is the channel. Is there another channel available? Skype? Dropbox? Whatsapp? Suggest using other channels for fun stuff, as to keep the email one clean. – Mr Me Aug 3 '14 at 10:53
  • I'm betting most of the 'funny' messages have the subject line "FWD:" _____ . So you could set up a filter to grab all forwarded messages from those specific people and stick them in another folder that you only check once per day... – Ryan Griggs Nov 23 '14 at 21:48

10 Answers 10

16

A couple thoughts:

Office Culture

Is hard to change. It's a matter of finesses and slowly changing trends, usually through one on one conversations. Trying to change culture with a grumpy email to the biggest list of culprits is almost never a win, as it doesn't change opinions. Instead, you may try targeting the movers and shakers in the office, which probably includes both the bosses (even though they themselves are part of the problem) as well as the most voluble joke email senders.

I'd frame it as an honest problem - the volume and distraction of non-work related emails are filling up your single best communication channel. You want to make sure the important issues get through and that you are always available to help whenever a work related issue arises. What can we do here? Is there a way for your to opt-out of getting these mails without spoiling the fun.

If I was the boss, I'd react pretty well to having my team member tell me that they want to get their work done and they need my help communicating some information.

Security

As an aside, jokes and joke emails - particularly with certain attachment types are a security risk. There is a really valid point to the idea that sharing joke emails around the company is a really great way to share malicious code. The IT department is a particularly horrible risk, as your group likely has access rights to the really critical stuff in your network.

So it opens the thought to you that you may want to have a (very, very private) chat with your security officer or whoever has primary responsibility for this. You shouldn't have to be the heavyweight about the security risk - it shoudl be decided by the guy or team with the responsibility... but it's a valid concern these days.

Opt-Out Options

A non-aggressive solution would be to offer to set up or research an opt-out option - anything from an office-fun list to a service or repository - whatever works for the culture. But the key being that only people that sign up for this get emails, and the list is distinct from office sponsored stuff or work related stuff. Taht gives the compromise of not stopping the fun, while keeping you from having an email box filled with stuff that isn't work.

...

Me personally - I'd probably try both to shift the culture and attack the security issue. While normally I prefer compromise, because I happen to work in a team with heavy security responsibility, I'd take the security issue pretty seriously. But mileage varies radically here.

  • The "this might be a virus vector" approach is quite nice. You need to be able to detect these without opening the mail. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 3 '13 at 6:41
  • +1 for fun-list idea. Sometimes there might be some interesting activity, which you would love to know about. In any case you want all "fun" emails go to special folder, deleted maybe weekly, most without reading. It would be nice if people wrote good subject (so you can make keep/delete decision from subject) but we are not in such perfect universe. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Apr 22 '14 at 0:20
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There could be two ways that these are being passed around:

Official broadcast email address (e.g. ALL-OFFICE-EMPLOYEES)

In this case, I think it would be appropriate to ask that this be reserved for official communications that are of interest to the entire group. Some organizations limit the use of these to admins, etc. This would seem to be a happy medium between policing every single e-mail and allowing a free-for-all.

Handmade list of email addresses.

In this case, it seems you can ask to be removed from their personal "joke" list. If you think it will soften it, you can say that you already get a lot of these things from your SO/etc, so a lot of them are repeats for you.

  • No need to be removed, with separate list you can simply use filter. Never do manually what you can script ;) – user1023 Jun 13 '14 at 14:01
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I think even in the best of circumstances where people understand of the purpose of well-written email, things STILL get out of hand. You'll never get on top of this problem by enforcing some type "standard" or "rules" that everyone agrees on simply because of the fact that what is "on-topic" to one person is spurious or useless another. Moreover, as the size of an organization grows, the email interactions can grow (potentially) as O(N^2) as the time that each individual has to act upon email is always decreasing.

Complaining to the offenders, or worse, complaining to management will really risk creating bad feelings and perhaps even cut off communication that needs to occur.

This is a problem that each person has to deal with on their own in their own way.

One awesome resource for how to deal with email specifically and time managment in general is Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. Check it out, especially the google talk video.

In a nutshell, the best thing you can do is to be mindful of your time and attention. For email, this means, among other things, to ruthlessly delete crap as soon as you see it (basically delete ALL non-actionable messages). NEVER participate in pointless email discussions. Limit the times you actually work with email to pre-determined intervals (ie, at the top of the hour instead of whenever you get an email). Make use of filters to group email as needed. Craft your responses to address only actionable requests. Narrow the cc list if possible. Consider using side-channels like IM instead of email for ambient communication with intimate team-members. Consider using wiki's or RSS feeds instead of emails for messages that would begin with "FYI" or be titled as "news."

I would also add that making an example of yourself INSTEAD of pointing out the wrong-doings of others will promote good behavior all around.

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I usually set up a number of folders for things like "office spam" (which is what I generally call things that are sent to all users), with rules to divert specified emails to those folders. Likewise, I set up folders and rules for project management and source control systems that send out emails for every check in.

Co-workers who are unusually spammy with jokes, recipes, photos and other non-business related items get their own folders. Those get checked before lunch and before leaving at the end of the day.

  • I more or less do the same, but, that doesn't stop the emails from coming. And filters are a bit icky, they can't distinguish a kitty picture from a time critical email if they come from the same person. – yannis May 16 '12 at 0:30
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    @YannisRizos: I'm convinced "time-critical email" should be an oxymoron. Time-critical is what chat clients are for. Email gets ignored until I'm in a free space. – pdr May 16 '12 at 11:30
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    @YannisRizos - Have you actually asked them to stop sending you these emails? – Donald May 16 '12 at 11:34
  • @pdr, time critical emails are common and I get faster responses generally to email than messsaging systems. In som eenvironments, if you wait an hour to chek a mesaage you could havea very unhappy client. I would never consider waiting to check email. Dealing with urgent email is always my first responsibility. But then I support production databases. – HLGEM Oct 16 '12 at 21:47
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    @pdr A friend was fired recently for not responding to an email within half an hour. It's moronic, and probably just an excuse (remember, this is crisis laden Greece), but it happened. – yannis Oct 30 '12 at 5:03
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One solution I haven't seen anyone suggest yet, is to encourage everyone to use proper subject lines. Any emails with JOKE: or POLITICS: as part of the subject can then be filtered away or simply deleted.

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    Good idea, I think that this would only practical if emialers are discipline. – tehnyit May 16 '12 at 13:32
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One possibility that I have seen effectively implemented is to create a link sharing facility of some sort (Yammer, a Blog, SocialCast, etc.) and ask people to confine jokes, kitty photos, etc. to that.

If that's not possible, I would favor the solution proposed by @JohnMcG (partition the distribution list into a "Jokes" list and ask to be removed.)

  • Hm. That's a very good idea, but it would only work for links and jokes. Most of the off topic emails I get are neither links or jokes, they might even be considered serious or important, but they are hopelessly off topic (for my company inbox). For example, the past month I've been getting a lot of emails commenting on the recent legislative election, and while it's an issue I'd feverishly discuss with my colleagues during off hours or work breaks, it has no place in my inbox. – yannis May 16 '12 at 1:55
  • @YannisRizos: Could you set up a local IRC server for the off-topic chatting? – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner May 16 '12 at 21:29
2

First, ask them to stop including you on off topic emails, perhaps as a reply to an offending email.

If that doesn't work, talk to your supervisor, their supervisor, HR, or whoever is appropiate to handle these situations in your company.

  • Hmm... I forgot to include that in the question, management is not exempt from the behaviour. Not the main culprits, but still. – yannis May 15 '12 at 22:06
  • In that case I would try talking to offender at the top of the management hierarchy, and explain the effect of the aggregate behavior of everyone following their example. – JGWeissman May 15 '12 at 22:14
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While reading the comments, I notice you wrote:

A friend was fired recently for not responding to an email within half an hour. It's moronic, and probably just an excuse (remember, this is crisis laden Greece), but it happened.

I think you are pretty much giving the perfect excuse to raise a flag and get some attention to that topic without looking like an outlier. A lost job is definitely something serious and you can make a point of how non-work related emails can lead to these kind of situations, I think anyone with a sense of professionalism will get the point.

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If you are looked at as a leader on the team, I would definitely not bluntly ask them to stop sending these types of emails. It is important for people to feel that the team leaders are approachable. Sure, it can be annoying sometimes, but your behavior helps dictate the culture and you don't want to come off as an elitist.

I try to reply to such emails using my personal email. People slowly start to get the picture. Maybe it will be as easy as that?

  • That assumes you're fine with them being able to poke you when you're off the clock. If you're dealing with people flooding your work inbox with junk, do you really want them to be able to make a mess of your personal account too? I wouldn't. – Dan Neely May 16 '12 at 14:46
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In a remote work environment it's hard to create bond between employees. There might have been a decision in the company to encourage such behavior in the hopes it improves relationships.

It seems to me that your problem isn't that such messages are being sent, but that they are sent in a way that isn't easy to be ignored.

If your company would use Slack or Microsoft Teams it would be easy to create a special channel for those joke emails and it likely also improves your overall information flow to move to such a tool.

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