As a communication tool, email can function as both a messenger and a communication channel. Email "conversations" can take the place of (albeit not perfectly) verbal or face-to-face dialogue. A key difference is in the documentation, which allows for clarity (but can also create misunderstanding) and posterity (emails live forever). The email trail captures the words that were written, but sometimes miss the context or framework of the conversation or issue. Also, email cannot capture the other elements often essential to communication - tone of voice, demeanour, gestures and humour cannot be captured in the text of an email. Essential to using email well is to take a "just the facts" approach. Document and include only information, data and language that could be understood by anyone reading it, not just the intended recipient. This doesn't mean dumbing-it-down, or writing in code. Apply the three C's - clear, concise, complete (3C) - to help ensure that an email is understood, that you get the answers you need, and that you provide answers and information in the most effective way.
Writing 3C emails and responses well and in a timely manner can help meet those other email objectives of performance and reputation. The perception sometimes is that a quick response is best, in order to show that you are on top of things or are someone who has all the knowledge and information required. If the real reason you're responding to that email at midnight is to show that you're always working, then don't. This does not enhance your performance or reputation - it just ruins your sleep. It creates the expectation that you will ALWAYS be available (which, trust me, you don't want). It can also give you the reputation as the team all-ogist - the person who always has to get their oar in, even when it has nothing to do with them (a variation on this is the person who speaks up at meetings about every agenda item regardless of its or their relevance to the topic).
Before leaping to reply or reply all, consider how, and even whether, to respond.
- Is the email addressed directly to you, or are you part of a large group or distribution list? Are you in the "to" list, or the "cc" list (or "bcc" - a whole different kind of email)? If you're responding to an email to a group, or one on which you were cc'd, include in your message WHY you are responding (this will also help clarify for you whether or not you should be). Perhaps you have some specialized knowledge that may help, or maybe you need to be kept informed of progress on the issue/question because it affects the XYZ-project you're working on.
- Related to above, should you reply just to the author or to the group? This is very important - there are many cautionary tales out there about the misuse of "reply all" - don't become one of them. Really consider what you would respond with and to whom by carefully reading the message and questions, and looking at all of the original recipients - both "to" and "cc". Do they all need or want to see your reply? Do you want everyone to see it? If you are in the "bcc" list, never use reply all; the whole point of bcc (from blind carbon copy, from the good old typewriter days) is that you know you've received the email, but the other recipients don't; don't create new issues or questions by revealing your inclusion unless and until you have addressed things with the original author.
- Does the email have a question, or a request for a response, or it is a report or recording of some information (is it an FYI)? Unless you are answering a question, correcting some information in a report, or are specifically asked to respond to a question, confirm receipt, or approve the information, a response is not required.
- Is there urgency or a time-sensitivity indicated in the message? Take the time to consider if and how to respond, and then write carefully to craft a 3C response. It is much better to get it done right than to get it done quickly (especially if quickly also means poorly or, worse, incorrectly).
Careful writing also considers the audience, and the unwritten messages that are being sent. When writing or replying to a group, keep emails professional. Be polite. Eliminate or minimize use of slang or colloquialism, and emphases such as multiple exclamation points and emoticons should be avoided (anything that resembles how you might write a text message should be saved for non-work communication). Remember that emails become part of project documentation, so they should be professional and 3C as often as possible.
As for holiday email management, it is usually not possible to completely unplug from email or other work communications. As a project manager, you have a responsibility to your projects that transcends the 8/5 schedule. But you can implement strategies to keep disruptions to a minimum and limited to actual emergencies. Prior to going away, let key team members know that you'll be away; they may get tired of the reminders of your pending vacation, but they can't claim it was a surprise when it actually happens. Establish rules for yourself and the key personnel in your teams and projects for how you will deal with emails while away. For me, I first establish a schedule of when or how often I will even check emails - usually every 3-4 days. I have two or three people whose emails I will read or scan when I check my email. And I will read any email that is indicated as "URGENT" in the subject line (not just the ones marked as "high importance", as this is another often misused tool in email). When I return to work, I review all emails from my time away, address any outstanding questions and issues, and support the decisions and actions taken in my absence. If I stick to these rules, and so do the folks in my teams and projects, we all get what we need - they get my input when needed, as well as the opportunity to work independently for a bit, and I get a restful vacation.