Workplace communication is full of problems. You know it; I know it. Most of us accept it, and some try to fix it. With so many problems rooted in culture, technology, and psychology, it is sometimes hard to see some simple, easy-to-implement solutions that can create a significant difference. Today, we’ll discuss one such solution that got a bad rap for some reason. It’s a solution that can save you and your organization hundreds of distractions a week and costs nothing to use.
If I had to choose only one problem to address in workplace communication, it would be the unbearable simplicity of creating distractions for others. You can potentially interrupt dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people with a click of a button. This happens when you send an email to a massive distribution, but the real problem is that your email is often just the beginning of a chain reaction. In no time, someone decides to reply to your email and does so using the infamous Reply All button. The Reply All button is probably the worse idea in the history of workplace communication. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single email client software I am aware of that doesn’t have this option. Most email clients don’t even try to hide it or make it harder to reach; it is just there at the top of the email message, begging to be used.
Email as a communication platform has little friction, to begin with. That is why sending an email with a wide distribution is so easy. The option to Reply All makes this problem exponentially bigger. Sending a simple (and probably meaningless) “I agree!” message to the same dozens of people will take you two seconds. Most recipients could care less, but they are nevertheless distracted if only because of the notification that pops at the corner of their screen. Even if you do have something meaningful to share as a response, it is safe to assume it is not equally relevant to all the people in the distribution. No one is the bad person in this scenario; most of us don’t think twice before we Reply All. The option is so appealing, and the risk of someone being offended because they were removed from “the conversation” makes Reply All practically the default option for many of us. In a previous issue, I wrote about the problem with Reply All, but let’s face it: Overcoming our deeply-programmed defaults is not trivial, and when we are dealing with dozens or more people in the loop, it takes only a few of them to create a chain reaction with a grave cost to the organization.
Luckily, there’s an easy and free solution that is in the total control of the sender of that original email — a solution that doesn’t invite and barely enables an avalanche of follow-ups: using BCC.
Before we get into just how magical the BCC alternative is, it’s essential to recall that when you only need to share information, and you are not expecting a discussion, your best option is to use a platform that doesn’t invite replies at all. A shared location where the data resides and is updated is the optimal solution when you need to share the same type of information repeatedly (for example, when sharing the weekly status of your project). Allowing people to pull the information instead of pushing it to their inboxes is less intrusive. It, therefore, creates fewer distractions to deep work without taking anything away from transparency and collaboration. But there will always be cases where you must announce something or share important information ad-hoc. In such cases, using a shared location and expecting people to pull the information is unrealistic, if only because they are not expecting the update. In these cases, email is undoubtedly a useful platform, but we must control the chain reaction it can create in the form of dozens and hundreds of follow-up messages. And that’s what makes BCC a great option.
BCC stands for Blind Carbon Copy, meaning the BCC recipients are hidden from each other. In other words, when I am a BCC recipient, I can only see the name of the sender and the people listed in the To and CC lists; I cannot see who is there with me in the BCC list. Sounds like a pretty secretive mode of operation, but that’s hardly the point in our case. We are not trying to send information without others knowing, but we do want to reduce follow-up emails as much as possible. One side effect of having the entire list of recipients in BCC is that no one can use Reply All. Well, they can use the Reply All button, but their reply will only be sent to the original sender. With this simple decision to use BCC instead of To and CC, we can reduce the potential follow-ups by dozens of percent.
Don’t get me wrong: If someone wants to respond in a broad forum and share their insights with dozens of people, they certainly can. But they have to work for it. The only way to send a response to dozens of people is to add them to the To or CC lists intentionally. When we use BCC, we effectively make the automatic Reply All option infeasible. The problem with Reply All is not the fact that the option exists. I wouldn’t strictly limit the number of recipients in the email client. The problem is that we are drawn to this default without a second thought. When BCC is used, we simply cannot spam dozens of people without being intentional about it. We introduce friction into the conversation (a conversation we never meant to have), and that’s a critical improvement.
I think of BCC as a Broadcast Channel. Use it whenever you must share something in a wide distribution and when you cannot use a shared location. Remember that the purpose of sharing information with many people can never be a discussion. No effective discussion can be done with dozens of people, let alone over email. Limit your deep discussions to real-time meetings with a handful of people.
The BCC broadcast channel is a great solution, but you shouldn’t overuse it. Even without replies, when people constantly push information in a wide distribution, the overhead becomes huge in no time. When used only when there is a real need, BCC can eliminate the typical email threads created when you share information with a large group.