Monday, May 21, 2012

How to make your emails more effective

I would wager that most if not all interns are accustomed to using email as a primary form of communication.  I remember getting my very first email account in 1994 when I started college.  (Yes, in a time before the iPod, cue the dramatic music....)  Many of you have likely had your own email accounts since you were preteens or even had a single-digit age.  However, being comfortable with a medium of communication does not necessarily equate to effective use.  Email in the business world--and the architectural world--can be a powerful tool if used effectively.

As always, the first rule is to remember that your work email is for just that: work.  Any and every email you send out of and receive into your work email address belongs to your employer, and any of those emails can be evidence in a court of law.  Less drastic but just as important is that your emails, when well-written, can resolve disputes and clear up misunderstandings quickly during a project.  A clear, respectful email can be used to settle he-said-she-said-we-said problems in short order...or even prevent them in the first place.

The second rule of email is a corollary to the first: use email appropriately. Never write anything in an email that you wouldn't want read out at an office-wide meeting or printed on a billboard. If you even remotely think there could be an issue (or a possible ugly interaction) with what you're about to email out, make a phone call first, then use the email to recap the phone conversation as a confirmation of next steps.

The third rule of email is lesser-known but still very important: construct your emails precisely and appropriately.  Let's say you need to email the structural engineer about column locations in the main lobby of the Westview Hospital project.  You're going to ask the engineer if it's possible to offset a section of structure along a gridline, and you're including a PDF of a plan showing what you want to do.  

Here's what not to do:

To: Alex T. Engineer
From: Amy F. Intern
Subject: Westview Hospital
Attachment: WestviewPlan.pdf
Hay Alex, 
we want to move a section of grid line G so we can get more room in the lobby and get those columns away from the front door? take a look at this and let me know.

First of all, the subject line needs to be more precise than just the project name.  Why? Because this engineer probably gets a dozen or more emails from you per day and then a couple dozen per day from other consultants about the Westview Hospital project.  When they need to search their inbox or their email files to find the one about moving a column in the lobby, how can they do so effectively when they have literally over 100 emails titled "Westview Hospital"?  

The same goes for the attachment name.  When you or they save this PDF somewhere, it needs to be easily searchable and identifiable.  Naming it more precisely and putting a date on it (the date it was emailed out or created for review) allows you or them to find it easily in a month when they need to refer to it again.

Finally, the email reads like a run on question from a teenager, with no sense of capitalization.  The fact that you're asking an engineer if you can move his/her columns make it clear that you need a response, so you can delete the "let me know" part of the email. You have a college degree--write like it!  

Here's a better email:

To: Alex T. Engineer
From: Amy F. Intern
Subject: Westview Hospital - Move gridline G in lobby?
Attachment: Westview Lobby Plan w_gridline G - 2012-05-23.pdf
Hi Alex, 
In order to comply with some egress code issues, we need more clearance at the front door in the lobby.  What is the best way to move a section of grid line G in order to get the columns at G/3 and G/4 away from the front door? I've attached a PDF showing how we would ideally relocate those columns.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vacations: timing isn't everything

This week's post is late because I've been working towards a deadline next week and forgot to post anything.  The deadline next week is doubly important with the impending Memorial Day weekend holiday.  If we don't make our deadline next week, then we almost might as well wait two more weeks to finish CDs because some of us on the project team, including yours truly, will be taking part of Memorial Day week off.  But we can't take the extra time because it will mess up the schedule and put the project behind.

I booked my Memorial Day trip a few months ago, thinking that there's no way there would be a deadline around a holiday.  You would think I'd know better after almost twelve years of doing this for a living, but alas.  I never once thought of canceling my vacay, though.  My take on vacations and time off is echoed by some of the wisest words I've ever heard an intern say.  Recently, an intern my office said, "There's never a good time to take your vacation, so you might as well take it when you want to."  It's good advice.

So take your vacation.  Leave town.  Don't leave town and don't answer the phone or email.  Take the break, enjoy the downtime, and use your vacation.  You've earned it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What to do with that pesky tax refund

Many if not all of you reading this received tax refunds this year.  This is the case for most architectural interns--filling out a fairly simple tax refund and maybe only deducting for your student loan interest puts you in the running for a decent refund and the ensuing feeling of "yeah, I hit the jackpot, yo!" when you get that refund check in your hand.  It's tempting to go out and spend it, though some of the more disciplined among you might decide to pay down (or pay off) some credit card debt with it.  But I have a third option to suggest: invest it in a Roth IRA.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal section of the Sunday 4/29/12 Denver Post, readers were reminded that some recent reports from the entities in charge of Medicare and Social Security funds state that these funds are currently slated to run dry in 2033 (barring any action between now and then to stem this tide).  This  means that anyone who is under the age of 41 right now in 2012 should expect to only receive 70% to 75% of what he or she is "supposed to" receive.  While this sounds like it's a million miles away and may very well be a Doomsday prediction, it's a vital reminder that there's never a bad time to start planning for retirement.  Time is on your side when it comes to retirement planning--even a few bucks socked away when you're 25 and then left alone will make a huge difference in 30 years when you suddenly need it. (Here's a good chart that breaks down how time is on your side when it comes to investing.)

A Roth IRA is easy enough to set up at a bank, credit union, or online investment entity, like TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, Charles Schwab, etc.  Look for one that has minimal to no fees (i.e., they won't charge you management fees as long as you only make three transactions on the account per month, etc.)  You can only put up to $5,000 into it each year, and it's after-tax income (unlike your 401(k), which is pretax income and can also help you at tax time by lowering your taxable income), but when you take out the Roth IRA money in 30+ years, the government can't tax it.  Boo-yah.  Now that's hitting the jackpot.