Is Email the Scapegoat for Dysfunctional Practices?

Like the cycles of seasons, a parade of articles calling for the death of email regularly march through the business press. Praise of organizations that banned email in favor of direct messages, a return to phone calls and desk visits, or automated systems that shut down email during “non-work hours” are offered as saviors for our email plagued society.

Like most knowledge workers, I’ve had my struggles with email but when I hear the cacophony of voices with pitchforks and torches are calling for the death of email, it is apparent that the technology is not the problem, it is how people manage it.

What’s Really the Problem

Who is to blame for your “always on” feeling? Were you instructed to check email on your smartphone at all hours? Do you feel that others will not think you professional if you do not answer an email at 11 pm or on the beach with your family? Certainly, some organizations may explicitly require you to be always checking but I hope they compensate you accordingly or, if they have no sense of boundaries, you find a healthier environment. Otherwise, honestly ask yourself who put this expectation in place: your organization or your insecurity?

Do you feel a disconnect from other employees? Then occasionally use the phone or make a desk visit. Go with coworkers to lunch or walk together during a break. As I’ll note below, realize that what seems better to you could be disruptive to your colleague.

Are there better tools than email? Email is not the universal solution to all business communication challenges. Project communication is probably handled better in a project workspace where document circulation and communication is centralized. Some communications are better handled through phone, visit, or texting. Because email has been abused or forced into communication situations that are inappropriate doesn’t mean that all email should be banned.

It may be that you work in a dysfunctional organization that places unrealistic demands on employees and uses email as the tool to propagate the problems. But that is not the fault of the technology and, if email didn’t exist, certainly another means would encourage ineffective interactions.

In Praise of Email

I come not to bury email but to praise it. For all of its problems, it is the perfect solution for asynchronous communication,

Focused Work: Productivity experts understand that some of the best work is performed when a person is able to focus on a task for a specified period of time and get into a flow state. However, interruptions disrupt that flow and degrade productivity as one returns back to the task. Those who advocate calling, desk visits, and instant messaging as the primary medium fail to realize that the priority of the caller should not dictate the priority of the recipient. If I have designated 30-40 minutes for focused work, I can cut off my email and silence my phone but if you walk into my office with some matter that is not urgent because you hate email, you will disrupt my work that I have deemed important. When you email me (or leave a voicemail), I can give it proper attention at the end of that focused work session.

Task Triage: Even when a person is not in focused work, email allows a productive person to triage what needs attention now and what should be delayed in favor of another task. Calling or texting just adds another channel that I must track for task management outside of my inbox whereas the email inbox becomes a good centralized location for current actionable items. As a GTD’er, I do consolidate inboxes but my email grouping system allows for efficient task organization of work that comes in my most commonly used channel.

Thoughtful Support: With email, I can see your subject and review the matter and thoughtfully respond. I will probably give a better answer when I can think about it than when I am on the phone with you and must answer immediately with whatever is on the top of my mind minus any distractions going on during your call. Of course, a scheduled call with a proposed subject helps with this issue.

Recommendations

The Franklin Covey organization explains the solution well in its 5 Choices program; Rule your technology, don’t let it rule you. Great advice for email, social media, and other technology. Here are some of my recommendations for handling email effectively:

  • Unless directed otherwise, answer email when appropriate for you. Some people send an email at 7 pm because they just remembered something that they need to share and expect that others will read and respond the next morning. You are probably not expected to respond unless it is an emergency and, if it is an emergency, wouldn’t someone call you?
  • Learn to write effective emails. Take more time up front to learn to communicate succinctly and effectively. It will help in more areas of life than just email.
  • Use rules to automatically direct newsletters and similar email to a folder for batch processing during down time.
  • Customize notification rules to only provide screen and sound alerts when you get emails from key individuals.
  • Delete or archive old emails and get them out of your active inbox. If not, how do you know what is important and actionable and what no longer needs attention?
  • Don’t create complex folder structures for saved emails. I have a couple for key projects, one for temporary projects that I don’t want to keep in the inbox, and one called “Archive” that everything else worth saving goes into. The search function gets everything I need.
  • Use categories to sort emails in the Inbox by generic reusable names (Defined Task 1, Defined Task 2…, Document Review, Waiting For…) and only keep the last email in a conversation thread. When you finish tasks and drag them into an archive folder so you can reuse the category.

Additional Reading

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