Essential guide to email, calendars and instant messaging

A women checks her online calendar for appointments

Communication tools can increase collaboration, improve productivity, and boost marketing for your business. Email is essential, but other tools such as shared calendars and instant messaging platforms are powerful pieces of software that are crucial to how many modern companies work.

Using email

Getting email

Email management, security and privacy

Shared calendars

Instant messaging

Management and business policies

1. Using email

Email remains a convenient and fast way of keeping in touch with colleagues, customers, and other contacts from across the world.

Delivery is almost instantaneous

  • With smartphones and other mobile devices, recipients can pick up messages wherever they are.

Email is versatile

  • You can attach images, files and embed rich content.
  • Staff can log in to their email even when away from the office on a mobile device.
  • When someone is unavailable, sending a quick email is often better than a voicemail message, especially when the message involves detailed information.

You can use email for many things in your business

  • Email is a cost-effective marketing channel. Information of all kinds can be distributed to your customers (providing they have opted in to receive such communications).
  • Email enables you to be more responsive to changes. For instance, you can change the prices in an online newsletter quickly because there is no printed material involved.
  • Dealing with customer queries by email instead of telephone may reduce your costs and creates a valuable paper trail.
  • Automated emails can keep your customers updated with the status of their orders.
  • Attaching files is a good way of transferring important information.

2. Getting email

There are several ways your business can implement email.

Use a free online email service

  • Online email services are accessed through a standard web browser (such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari).
  • Popular online email services include Google's Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft's
  • Using a free address can look unprofessional to customers, clients, and suppliers. You should purchase your own domain and create custom email addresses to ensure the best impression.

Purchase mailboxes from your web host

  • If you use a company to host or support your website they should be create email addresses for you These are often called mailboxes.
  • To look professional, ensure your email addresses end in your company domain name. For instance, each member of staff could have [email protected].
  • Mailboxes can cost as little as £1 a month, but they are often included when you buy hosting space for your business website.
  • Mailboxes should be accessible using common email software like Microsoft Outlook and on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Use cloud-hosted email

  • Services such as Microsoft 365 enable businesses to manage their entire email infrastructure in the cloud.
  • All data is stored on secure virtual servers.
  • New users can be added quickly and conveniently, without the requirement to install or configure any software.
  • Staff can access email from any device with an internet connection.
  • Your staff will need to use passwords to protect their devices and email accounts.

3. Email management, security and privacy

There are several serious management, security and privacy issues you must be aware of when using email in your business.

Emails are usually sent across the internet in plain text

  • This means they could be intercepted and read.
  • The risk is small, but you should use end-to-end encryption (when available) to scramble sensitive data before you send it by email.
  • Many email packages allow you to encrypt emails.
  • Never ask customers to send sensitive information (such as credit card details) by email.

Email is a common way viruses can enter your systems

  • You should use software to scan all incoming and outgoing emails for security threats.
  • Be particularly wary of emails with attachments. Do not open attachments from people or email accounts that you don’t know.

While email is essential for communication, it can be distracting

  • Make sure employees do not feel they have to reply to every email as soon as it arrives.
  • Encourage employees to shut down email software when they have an important task to complete.
  • If there is a long or complex message that needs a considered reply, acknowledge receipt and let the sender know you will reply as soon as possible.

Employees may use the email you provide to send or receive personal or inappropriate messages

  • Set clear boundaries for what level of personal use is acceptable. For instance, you may permit employees to send personal messages when they are on breaks.
  • Some emails contain objectionable content which could offend members of staff. Make sure you have clear guidelines covering the forwarding of messages with questionable content.
  • Create, publish, share and enforce an email policy.

Email and the law

When you send an email, you are liable for its content

  • If your employees make libelous remarks in a private email, you could face legal action.
  • Emails can be retrieved from systems long after the sender or receiver believes they have been deleted and forgotten.

It is a good idea to add a disclaimer to your emails

  • Disclaimers are short snippets of legal text that state the information in your emails is confidential. The legal standing of email disclaimers is debated, but they may deter lawsuits relating to your emails and will provide evidence of your good practice in this area.

Regulations cover an employer's right to monitor employees' communications

  • Generally, employers can legally monitor email traffic.
  • You can inspect individual emails for 'specific business purposes'.

The use of email for marketing purposes is subject to tight regulation

  • All unsolicited commercial emails must be clearly identified as such.
  • You cannot send marketing emails to consumers, unincorporated partnerships and sole traders without their prior consent.
  • It’s essential that you follow GDPR guidelines on collecting and storing personal information, such as email addresses.
  • You must provide recipients with clear and simple methods for people to unsubscribe from your mailings.
  • It is unadvisable to send mass email campaigns from your business email server. Most providers limit the number of emails you can send per-hour or per-day. Instead, use dedicated email marketing software, such as Mailchimp.

4. Shared calendars

Shared calendars make it easier to arrange meetings and plan ahead

  • A shared calendar system provides a digital diary for everyone in your business.
  • Your employees can record their appointments in their calendar, just like using a normal diary.
  • Because the calendars are shared, everyone in your business can see when their colleagues are busy or free.
  • Booking meetings is much easier, because there is no need to confirm with each person. Meeting requests can simply be sent and accepted or declined by email or via notifications on mobile devices.
  • For shared calendars to work, everyone needs to buy into the process.

Alternatively, you can use an online calendar service

  • Online calendars are the most popular option for most businesses.
  • Free calendar services such as Google Calendar are accessed through a web browser or app, but that can also be used via the built-in calendar tools in most operating systems.
  • Subscription shared calendars are paid for monthly. The price depends on the number of users you have.
  • With a subscription service, all your diary information is hosted on servers owned by another company. You pay them to access your calendars across the internet.
  • The most common subscription shared calendar is hosted Microsoft 365. The calendar usually comes as part of a complete hosted email service which you pay a monthly subscription for each user.

Switching to a shared calendar can be difficult at first

  • People may be nervous of making their schedules more public. Most calendars have a 'private appointment' option for personal appointments.

5. Instant messaging

Instant messaging (IM) platforms allow you to hold real-time conversations online

  • Each person using the system can log in and show themselves as available or busy.
  • Everyone has a contact list of other people on the system they know.
  • Conversations happen typing messages into a window on the screen.
  • Messages are sent instantly. Some platforms also allow you to hold audio and video conversations too.
  • Most IM platforms feature end-to-end encryption, preventing the ability for hackers to ‘listen in’ on conversations.

IM platforms are widely available

  • Popular IM systems such as  Skype, WhatsApp and Slack are free. You’ll need an internet connection for them to work.
  • Certain business software will include IM features. For example, your project management app might offer the ability for staff members to communicate with each other directly within the software itself.
  • Other systems can be installed on your network for internal use such as IBM Sametime. You may have to purchase these solutions.
  • IM software allows your staff to get answers to simple questions quickly.
  • IM systems are an excellent for staff to stay in touch across multiple locations.
  • IM may decrease the reliance on email communication and improve productivity, as staff get answers to essential questions immediately without having to wait for an email.
  • You may even be able to use IM software as a customer service tool. For instance, you could offer online chat as an alternative to a telephone helpline.
  • Chatbots are now a popular way for businesses to offer human-like chat sessions with artificially intelligent software. This can potentially decrease customer support overheads and improve user satisfaction.

You need to carefully consider which IM system you use and how you implement it

  • Some of your employees may already use IM for personal communication, including popular programmes such as WhatsApp or Telegram.
  • If you choose to use the same system in your business, it may be hard for staff to tell the difference between personal and business use. In this case, you must set the boundaries, so see our article on Management and business policies.
  • IM can be disruptive, with staff being interrupted with trivial questions while they are trying to concentrate. You can avoid this to some extent with the software's 'busy' or 'do not disturb' functions.
  • Audio and video conversations use considerable bandwidth which might slow down the internet connection for everyone else in the organisation.

6. Management and business policies

When you adopt new communication tools into your business, you must tell staff how they should use them. You can highlight the opportunities, but set firm boundaries as well.

Personal use of business communication systems can become a serious problem

  • Ensure your employees understand their responsibilities and understand when personal use is acceptable or not.
  • For instance, you may allow personal use of email and IM systems during breaks only.

Safety and security are critical for modern businesses

  • Most communication systems like email and IM require staff to follow rules to ensure they’re safe.

You should ensure your employees understand that sensitive information should never be sent unencrypted.

  • Every employee should understand their responsibilities and have these codified in an acceptable use policy.
  • Accessing systems on mobile devices can increase the risk, particularly if private devices are unsecured.

You should control how employees communicate in specific situations

  • For instance, it may not be acceptable for employees to use email to tell their line manager that they are on sick leave.
  • You should communicate any such situations clearly to your employees, through training and business policies.

Make sure any new systems are included in your company's guidelines and policies


Expert quote

"Not enough time is the number one enemy of the business owner. Make sure you make good use of IT and software so that you can work as efficiently as possible" - Sean McPheat, MTD Sales Training

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