In the early days of the internet, email natives loved to trade tales of executives who asked their assistants to print out emails so they could read and respond to them on paper. Now we all use email, and assistants are a seemingly rare commodity. But they can still play a useful role in managing your messages.
That kind of support is no longer limited to the lucky few who have administrative help on staff, either. Thanks to the emergence of the collaborative economy, in which people can access services on a pay-for-use model, there are more and more options for getting administrative support, whether it be using a virtual personal assistant service, hiring a part-time assistant through Craigslist, or having more traditional access to administrative support through your company.
An assistant can reduce the burden of email management in ways automated systems can’t, be they third-party plugins or rules and filters that you set up within your inbox. They can function as your email triage system, conduct your daily inbox reviews, or even reply to individual messages. The most effective setup combines human support a smart set of email rules and filters—so that you’re not wasting your assistant’s time on the routine job of deleting junk mail or filing missives that you don’t need. Considering how much of your workload likely involves reviewing incoming messages, replying to calendar requests and ensuring your top-priority emails get answered promptly, asking for assistance with email triage is in fact one of the best uses of administrative support.
The decision to delegate
If the idea of delegating email management fills you with alarm, know that you don’t need to give someone full access to your email in order to get meaningful help managing your inbox (more on this in the setup section below). How much of your email you delegate depends not only on how much support you have available, but also on your working style, your relationship with your assistant, and your office culture. Here are few questions to ask yourself before deciding how much email management you can delegate, and whom you want to hire for that support:
How much skill and discretion can you expect?
In the most ideal situation, you’d get daily support from a highly trusted assistant who has direct access to your inbox and outbox, so they could work through calendar invitations, billing or financial admin, or other routine requests. But trusting someone with your outbox is only advisable if you trust that person’s judgment about your work and priorities, and know that their grammar and spelling is at least as good as your own. And trusting someone with direct access to the whole of your primary inbox is only advisable if you can expect that person to exercise as much discretion as you’d get from a priest or therapist. If you’re working with part-time or virtual support, you’ll need to scale back these expectations; it will be your job to decide which emails your assistant sees and addresses, rather than vice versa.
What kind of relationship do you have with this person?
If you rely on a certain amount of professional distance to make your working relationship successful, it may feel awkward for your assistant to come across personal email from friends or family. If your assistant is paid by your company, rather than you personally, take care to avoid exposing your assistant to messages that could create any conflicts of interest (for example, correspondence about a possible job change). And if you share your assistant with others, think carefully about whether managing your email is feasible in the context of your assistant’s overall workload.
What’s normal in your office?
If your peers get help managing their email, or there’s a common practice of delegating certain kinds of email management (like calendaring), then don’t hesitate to do the same. If you would be the first person at your level to get email triage assistance, talk with your manager, HR team, or IT department (to ensure you’re complying with email security guidelines) before asking your assistant to help. And if you’re thinking of hiring an outside assistant on your own nickel, make sure that you only forward or share email in a way that complies with your company’s email policies.
Setting up delegation
Once you have determined who will provide you with email support and to what degree you will rely on them, you need to set up a system that will allow you to manage your inbox collaboratively. That system includes both the technical set-up that will let you share email, and establishing clear expectations about how you and your assistant will work together. I recommend:
Using delegation services:
Since sharing your password is a risky proposition, it’s a good idea to share access to your email by using a delegation service like those provided by Gmail or Outlook. Delegation allows someone else to access your email using their own password; you can revoke that access at any time. Outlook even allows you to customize your delegation setup to limit which items your assistant can view.
Creating a second email address:
If you’re concerned about providing an assistant with direct access to your email, creating a second email address can be a useful strategy. This can work in one of two ways, depending on how much of your email you want your assistant to handle. If you’d like your assistant to see virtually all your email, provide her with access to your primary inbox, and create a separate email address that you share with people who need to be able to communicate with you on a confidential basis. (You can also use that second email address when you’re on vacation: ask your assistant to forward only those emails you must see, and enjoy the peace of ignoring your main email address.) If, on the other hand, you want your assistant to only handle selected correspondence, set up an address you can forward incoming mail to (possibly via mail rules) and give your assistant access to that address instead.
Specifying your reply protocol:
Agree on whether your assistant will reply to emails as you, or by forwarding your emails to an account in his own name, and replying from there (“Sarah forwarded your email, and asked me to find a time for you to meet”).
Drafting sample replies:
Particularly if you have a new assistant, or are trying to delegate email for the first time, write a few sample replies your assistant can use as the basis for her own messages. This is especially important if you are authorizing your assistant to send messages as you. While you’re at it, create a few standard replies that you can use yourself whenever you’re forwarding an email to your assistant (“My assistant Jim Smith, cc’ed on this email, can get back to you with a meeting time.”).
Making the most of delegation
Once you have your delegation system in place, there are a few practices and tools that facilitate collaborative email management:
Agree on when and how often your assistant will review your inbox. If you have access to daily support, your assistant can review your messages first thing, and perhaps at a couple of other agreed-upon times during the day; you’ll look at your inbox after your assistant has moved all extraneous messages into a folder (or folders) that he will work through himself. If your assistant is only providing a few hours of support each week, forward him the messages you’d like him to handle, or put them in a designated folder — just be sure to also reply to your correspondents, letting them know you or your assistant will get back to them in a few days.
Flags and tags:
If your assistant has direct access to your inbox, ask her to flag every email in your inbox that you should personally read or address, or conversely, tell her that you will flag any email you want her to handle. This will work best if you are using a system of mail folders, labels or tags to file emails of different types: set up a category or label (“Assistant”) that you can apply to any message your assistant should address, and one (“ReadThis”) for any message you need to read yourself, and make sure you each apply those labels as needed when either of you go through the inbox.
Set up mail rules that forward specific kinds of messages to your assistant, such as meeting requests or invoices. You can also set up a rule that forwards any flagged/starred message, or any message with a specific label; that way you can quickly tag any message you want forwarded, without having to manually forward each one.
If you’ve been reluctant to set up rules that move messages out of your inbox before you see them, an assistant can provide a safety net in case things go astray. Just ask your assistant to regularly review all your unread mail (for example, by looking in Gmail’s “all mail” folder, or doing an Outlook search for all unread mail) so that if an important message gets caught by your mail filters, he can move it back into your inbox.
While I came up with most of these tactics at a time when I had a wonderful full-time assistant, they are still useful to me even though now I have only occasional, part-time help. When I hire or task someone to help me on a major project, I often include email support as part of their mandate — and use tactics like selectively forwarding email, or delegating my helper to reply on my behalf.