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How we use email at work

“Employees can use an email’s cc function to position themselves in the organisational hierarchy under cover of simply wanting to provide information,” maintains BI researcher Karianne Skovholt, who is studying how we use email in the workplace.

Email in the workplace: it is not very many years since email first appeared and became a major method of communication in our working lives.

We are now so dependent on email that we may well wonder how we managed before it came on the scene. You do not need to ignore your mailbox for very long before red email icons start blinking at you and demanding attention.

Email is also helping to change the way that we communicate with other people.

“The most surprising aspect is the extensive practice of copying people in on emails,” says Karianne Skovholt, who is a PhD scholarship holder at BI Norwegian School of Management.

Reading the fine print in others’ emails

In her PhD project, Skovholt is interested in the ways that we use email as a means of communication at work. She studied over 700 emails from a working group in an international company based in Norway over a period of five months to see how email is used in practice.

What aroused Skovholt’s interest was the extensive practice of copying in recipients in the ‘Sender’ field.

She points out that sending copies of letters so that all interested parties are kept informed is something we are used to from formal business correspondence, but now that it has become an established practice in daily email communication at work, it has acquired a completely new meaning.

Together with Professor Jan Svennevig from BI, Karianne Skovholt has published her article “Email copies in workplace interaction” in the international scientific publication Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

We rank recipients

When we sent an email, we use the address field to rank people as primary and secondary recipients. Primary recipients are those whose addresses are shown in the ‘To’ field. They are the people for whom (ideally) we think the email’s contents have most relevance.

Secondary recipients are those in the ‘Cc’ field and for whom (ideally) we consider the email has less relevance. In practice, we receive large numbers of emails every day whose relevance to us is very obscure.

Karianne Skovholt compares email communication with that in a conversation. When we send an email to a number of different people, this opens a ‘chat room’ in which the recipients are invited either directly or indirectly to participate.

As in a conversation between two or more people, the participator roles often alternate between the speaker (the person saying the words), the addressees (the persons who are or could have been addressed by name), the participants (visible listeners whom the speaker assumes are taking part in the conversation but who are not direct addressees), and persons who overhear (listeners who are not intended to participate in the linguistic exchange).

The three functions of copying in on an email

In her study Karianne Skovholt identifies three main email functions for which copying in is used:

1) To inform and document. The most important function of copying people into an email is to provide information and keep them oriented about the progress of a project. Copying in on emails is an efficient way of sharing information. The copied in email can also serve as documentation that something has been done.

2) To invite participation and seek support in conflicts. Copying in on an email can be used indirectly to invite others to participate. Being copied in does not necessarily require an answer, but it permits the recipient to do so if they wish. A copied in email can also be used to request feedback, whether for support for an issue or praise for a task that has been done.

3) Creating visibility and positioning. Copying in on an email can also be used strategically to build networks and alliances.

Under cover of simply wishing to provide information, employees can position themselves within the organisation, and by copying in their superiors they can obtain support and exert pressure on the primary recipient.

Audun Farbrot | alfa
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