I use Facebook to message with my brother, Viber to exchange pictures with friends, Skype to call my Japanese teacher. But to communicate with my academic colleagues, I use exclusively emails. Despite the many 21st century communication possibilities - and the distinct advantages for communication they afford - email is the most popular way of communication in academic circles.
Considering that emails have been around since 1972, it is surprising that there is no globally shared academic email etiquette. You will find that some academic emails are like instant text-messaging, often ending with the notorious 'sent from my iphone', while others resemble electronic letters with an ultra-long signature at the end.
There is also a good mix of email strategies and attitudes when it comes to academics' holiday emails. When the "Super Organised Academic" goes on holiday, his/her out-of-office resembles a short essay: 'Thank you for your email. I'm on holiday from 20th of July to 4th of August. If you query is urgent, please contact XY. If your query can wait upon my return, please expect an answer by the 6th of August. If you don't hear from me by then and the issue hasn't been resolved, please resend your email.'
At the other end of the spectrum, you get an out-of-office which simply reads: 'Dr X is away on holiday'. Does it mean I need to resend my email when Dr X return or simply wait or...? Dr X probably didn't think further than that. Another extreme are the "Doctors on Duty" who would even leave their telephone numbers in case there was an email emergency: ' I'm away till 4th of September. If your email is urgent, you can call me on XXX'.
Most of us fall in-between these extremes, updating the same out-of-office template every time we have a break. Analogous to those helpful (or annoying?) door signs of closed supermarkets, our out-of-office is typically along the lines of: 'Thanks for making your way to our shop, we are closed but if you are starving, you can try the shop down the road'. While helpful, this strategy often generates even more emails, especially if John refers you to Jim, and Jim resends all emails back to John upon his return.
Academics need to learn how to write more efficient emails and use other communication channels (Chat, Twitter, Instagram) for different kinds of messages. However, unless there is a global change in academics' email habits, the problem of large email volumes won't go away. It is increasingly the case that a full inbox is a major reason for academics' post-holiday blues. Deleting holiday email might temporarily resolve the problem, but it won't prevent an email tsunami as soon as you re-open your virtual office door. We therefore need to think of new ways of handling academic emails to begin to change the status quo.
Here are a few things universities could try out to help with academic email traffic:
First, for each member of staff, universities could create separate accounts for research, teaching and administrative duties. This would help academics prioritize the messages and would help academics better juggle the multiple roles they fulfill.
Second, universities could charge a small fee for each email sent from an external account to an academic's 'research inbox'. Senders interested in finding out more about a certain research topic would need to purchase an 'email stamp' to get an answer. Even if it was just the value of a country's first class stamp, both the academic and the sender would value such emails more. Considering that any email reply can be turned into a quotable line ("XY, 2015, personal communication"), why not capitalising on a new way of gathering those nuggets?
Third, academics could have the option to temporarily close their email account while on leave. For such an 'email lock' to work, there should be a publicly-accessible noticeboard with the holiday dates of all university employees. These should be accompanied by a clearly-established cascade of contacts if someone is not available, with e-mail addresses, duties and working hours.
What do you think of such new email options? Do you use out-of-office messages? Would you like to drop me an email about it?!