Mail Manager

The dos and don’ts of mail retention

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With email being the letter of today and employees increasingly working remotely, managing emails in the age of compliance and litigation has never been more difficult, writes Tim Setchfield, head of product for email management software Mail Manager


The world in which we work has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the new hybrid workplace has come to the fore, even in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industries.

With employees working remotely and the supply chain across the AEC sector becoming increasingly strained, excellent communication has become vital in delivering projects successfully.

Between clients, partners, suppliers and contractors, there is no method of communication more important than written. And in today’s world, that is usually in the form of an email.

While Teams chat is the dominant force for internal communication, email is the letter of today. Emails are sent and received at an unprecedented level in the digital age. They contain important documentation, such as contracts, proposals, client correspondence, building plans, and more, and the context behind a project – who agreed on what? Why was it agreed? When was it agreed? What’s the latest communication with a client?

Remember, you don’t have a process if everyone is doing it differently, and email is the one thing in the business everyone typically manages differently

So, with email communication being vital, it makes sense to consider emails as a record. And records need to be kept for compliance and complete audit trails, a proper Golden Thread of Information, and a single source of truth. But, there is a difference between email archiving (keeping everything indefinitely) and email retention (keeping important emails for an appropriate period of time).

Unfortunately, email retention and management strategies too often fall short because the effective filing, classifying and finding of emails requires too much effort for employees who are focused on their jobs and not motivated to file or delete an email.

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With email being the letter of today and employees increasingly working remotely, managing emails in the age of compliance and litigation has never been more difficult – especially as everyone manages their email differently, creating potential risk in years to come. Remember, you don’t have a process if everyone is doing it differently, and email is the one thing in the business everyone typically manages differently.

The underlying email challenges for AEC businesses today

When it comes to the don’ts of email management, there are four main challenges I see companies facing:

1. Inconsistent email filing: Operational inefficiencies, poor productivity, incomplete audit trails

2. Conflicting retention strategies (or nothing in place): Non-compliance, over retention, data breaches

3. Poor eDiscovery capabilities: Time and cost-intensive eDiscovery, inability to find information, non-standardised email management processes

4. Lack of governance: No organisational change, no accountability

Some businesses solve one of these challenges, but most struggle to manage emails properly and ensure companywide standardisation holistically.

Why does email retention matter in the age of litigation?

Given what is contained in emails and the vast number of emails sent and received each day, email retention should be an essential part of reducing the business risk associated with accessing information, privacy controls, and dispute resolution. In the AEC industries, disputes are often won or lost on who has the better records management. Additionally, reducing storage costs as an important element of email retention (and disposition) ensures compliance with regulations and Records Management Policies.

As you know, many AEC projects last years and quite often things need going back to, sometimes ten years after the project has finished. Retaining the correct records from when the project was active is vital, especially when you need to go back to an old email from someone who was previously working on the project to see what was agreed or what was said to the client.

The dos of effective email management

1. Filing: Ensuring emails move from an individual’s inbox into a centralised and secure location

2. Standardising: Boost information governance and records management with a standardised approach to email management, so every person in the business becomes the best filer. Reducing the burden on employees helps ensure compliance with email policies

3. Discovering: The ability to find emails quickly and efficiently with effective search tools

Aside from software to help standardise the time-intensive process of managing emails, you can do several things before investing in an email management solution.

Establish the business need: What are your legal and regulatory requirements? Do you have a definition of what constitutes a ‘record’ and why? What’s your organisational culture around information management? Do you and your employees understand your existing retention policies? What does your dispute resolution strategy look like?

Defining what constitutes a record will likely conclude that emails do need to be treated as records of information and, therefore, need managing just like any other information and data generated in the built environment. Equally, from a regulatory perspective, the proper management of project-critical emails helps maintain QA and ISO Standards, and meet BIM requirements.

From an organisational culture point of view, all employees should understand the importance of email retention and email management policies and those policies benefit the entire organisation. Policies and processes that result in a change in existing behaviour – i.e. going from filing no emails to filing almost all emails – need proper change management and training for success. Some employees will still try to subvert the email management policy, so ensuring staff understand the key benefits of properly managing emails is vital in ensuring they do not evade the processes in place.

Regularly review your policies with legal counsel and communicate policies effectively: All email management and retention policies should be reviewed with legal counsel. One of the most important features of managing emails properly is the ability to access information quickly for the duration of any litigation proceeding.

The success of email policies can often be down to the implementation across the business. As a general rule of thumb, write the policy down (with the legal stamp of compliance approval), communicate it company-wide to set expectations, keep it as simple as possible, and get buy-in from all business leaders.

As part of the legal documentation and establishing the business need, the requirements of what should be filed and what shouldn’t, plus where to file and find information needs to be set out for all employees.

Automate where possible: Most organisations we speak to allow their staff to accumulate an unlimited and unwieldy number of emails, with no controls over what should be filed, what should be deleted, and what needs to be categorised. Some tackle this with automated features built within Outlook, such as mailbox size limits and Outlook rules. Others take it a step further and invest in an email archiving solution. Regardless, the one constant problem we encounter is the reliance on human input. Simply put, if the process requires the employee to meticulously look at and then file/delete every email they receive, they’ll never get any actual work done. In which case, the email will either get filed to the wrong folder, or the employee will begin to circumnavigate the process. And if everyone in the business isn’t following the process, then when it comes to eDiscovery, you’ll only find half the picture. When a dispute arises, that won’t help you.

Why emails should be managed like every other piece of information

Email management helps businesses in many ways. Firstly, it ensures all the regulatory compliance is followed and reduces the cost of non-compliance and risk of sanctions. Secondly, it helps businesses find important emails that will help them win the litigation. And, thirdly, it results in improved access to information for all staff which in turn increases innovation and productivity.

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