Email is the Internet's killer application. Where we once used to say, "Fax it," we now say, "Email me." But as wonderful a tool as email can be, for many, email is starting to turn from a productivity-enhancing tool to a productivity problem. It also poses some unique E&O exposures for agents. Learn about software tools and management approaches that can help you deal with these challenges.
Jupiter Communications predicts the number of commercial emails the average US consumer receives each year will skyrocket from 40 in 1999 to 1,600 by 2005. That's in addition to personal and nonmarketing email, which will jump from 1,750 to 4,000. Gartner Group Inc. predicts that the number of email messages will double each year through 2002. Gartner also predicts that this increase will threaten the productivity of more than 60 percent of users.
For business users the numbers are even higher. Heavy email users are becoming concerned about taking time off and returning to hundreds of unread messages. As you go through your inbox, the next thing you know, you've spent 60 minutes wading through messages, most of which were a complete waste of time.
Email is not going away. The rise of the Web and the ability to communicate easily with others using email has made it an essential business tool. To deal with it, agency managers must create ways to help users easily sort through or eliminate the glut of junk email being pushed toward them. Among the answers are tools that allow users to root out email abuse and clearly written, widely circulated electronic communication policies that spell out how employees are to use the agency email system. Together, these tools and policies can help protect against wasted bandwidth, filter messages to the appropriate user, even scan email for offensive or sensitive materials and protect against E&O problems.
But the problem is not just junk email. Jokes, chain letters, and personal messages take employees away from work-related tasks. And even official agency email that is poorly written and improperly distributed can be a productivity drain. Another drain is the problem of employees storing old email for years or not keeping email that must be legally documented. Even mishandled email that is improperly passed outside the company or mistakenly let in, leading to viruses, can create problems.
For those policies to work, there must be enforcement. But managers must be careful not to place so many restrictions on email usage that they hamstring staff from doing their jobs effectively.
New tools are not the only answer. Even more important is the need for strong email policies that, once in place, can help cut down on the amount of email before it begins. But it is not enough just to develop a policy and then walk away. You need to update policies on a regular basis because email technology and its possible impact on agency procedures are constantly changing. For example, very few agency managers have considered how the new availability of free Web email services such as Hotmail and Yahoo! will affect their safeguards. Policies should be rewritten to reflect the fact that employees should not be using these free services to send agency information.
You may need to let employees know that their email is being monitored and implement a chain of command to quickly deal with employees who misuse email. Every new employee should be required to read and sign the electronic communication policy. To present the new policy you should have an agency-wide mandatory presentation going over the details on the do's and don'ts of proper usage.
But be careful. You need to make sure your policy fits the agency culture and business priorities. You have to understand the business needs of your users to be able to make policies that allow you to operate effectively. This means you should get your staff involved in setting email policies.
Making sure you address the potential problems email can cause in an errors and omissions claim is also important. An improperly phrased email to a client can open up an agency to some thorny E&O issues. While almost every agency has "canned" letters that are at least E&O friendly, almost no one has similar "canned" email messages. The number of clients we deal with by email is only going to increase. Policies and procedures must be worked out now in anticipation of a dramatic increase in email traffic.
Bill Gates learned all too well in Microsoft's recent trial with the Justice Department that deleted emails are not necessarily really deleted. This could be a thorny issue in an E&O suit if an email you thought was deleted shows up as evidence. How long emails should be kept is a question you need to answer. Should email be treated just like a paper file? Do you know what your state requirements are for retention of electronic information?
And what about emails that come in from clients or insurers? Should a "bounce back" message policy be in place so the sender knows the email has been received and that policy coverage cannot be bound or changed until confirmed by an email from the agency? Or, suppose a client sends an email message that does not arrive at the agency and a loss occurs. What are the implications?
Automate tasks. If you always include contact information when you sign your emails, create a signature file. If you always forward mail from certain senders to someone else, automate the procedure. Outlook 98 and 2000 have a built-in "Rules Wizard" to allow you to filter incoming email. For example, we subscribe to several email newsletters that we don't need to read immediately. An Outlook rule automatically moves the email newsletter into a Newsletter folder for reading at a later, more convenient time.
Preview messages. How many messages do you really need to open? Sometimes you can glance at the subject line to know you can hit delete. Other times you need a little more information. The preview pane integrated in Outlook 2000 allows you to quickly scan an email without opening it and scroll by pressing the space bar.
Discipline yourself. Efficiency experts recommend dealing with a piece of paper only once. That also is good advice for managing email. Once a message arrives, read it and act on it. Delete it. Respond to it. File it.
Do not duplicate. Let others know your preferred means of communication. How many times has someone emailed and faxed you identical information-and then phoned to see if you received it? That kind of duplication is a time sink for everyone involved.
Stay safe. Email viruses can create one of the biggest time sinks you'll come across. And we've had way too many of them in recent months. Be vigilant, even skeptical when you receive mail from someone you do not know. Make sure your antivirus software is up-to-date. (Refer to the third article in this series, Virus Risk Management, for more information on computer viruses.)
Establish an electronic communication policy. Spell out agency guidelines and etiquette that will minimize the use and size of copy lists and outline rules for email that is only for business content. Have end-users contribute to the policy and look at work habits to make sure that new policies complement agency work styles.
Block junk and offensive mail by working with your ISP, and teach employees how to use built-in filtering tools. Offer new employees a tutorial on the filtering and filing tools available in the email application you use.
Create project databases where agency teams can share information. These can support discussion threads, action items, meeting minutes, and more. Also, create an agency intranet to capture specific types of information, such as policies, procedures, company contact information, policy information, etc. This will give employees one place to go for standard information, cutting down on unnecessary email.
Create a humor database as an outlet. While it may seem counterintuitive, we think it is better than banning humorous email messages entirely.
Urge users to be prudent about giving out their email addresses. This will help prevent junk mail before it starts.
Use one of the free email services to create a "public" email address. Whenever you sign up on a website you open yourself up to receiving unwanted emails. You can send the emails from this public address to a separate folder and scan the messages at your leisure.
Email is an important productivity tool. More and more clients will be seeking to communicate with your and your staff using this tool. As with any tool, only when it is used and managed properly will we be able to reap its full benefits. A sample Electronic Communications Policy is posted at http://www.steveanderson.com to use as a sample in developing your own policy. Please remember, you should modify this sample to fit your own situation and have appropriate legal council review it.
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