What is email good for anymore?

Yesterday I finished a really good SCRUM training with Stacia Viscardi that has been stirring something in my brain that has (on the surface) very little to do with Scrum. At one point over the two-day course she asked us what single thing we’d like to change about our working style or workplace. I said I would like to abolish all internal email and only use it in exceptional circumstances with clients/external partners. Just saying it gave me a slightly elated feeling; I felt like I was saying something dirty, controversial or impractical. Obviously it isn’t that controversial of an idea (in theory) but any large sea change in corporate behavior is easier said than done.

There have been a lot of studies and popular accounts recently about the evils of email. The theses range from people are drowning in an overwhelming and unmanageable glut of email to productivity is highest in organizations where email is limited or even eliminated for internal communications. Anyone who works in a knowledge industry has probably had the experience of going on vacation for a few days and returning to hundreds (thousands once for me!) of emails that need to be sorted, prioritized and responded to. Business email is only part of the problem; many of us have multiple personal email addresses (not to mention social in-boxes) whose bounty overfloweth, often with junk we don’t want or poorly targeted sales pitches from retailers with whom we have a casual relationship. The curse of email is that one begets another which begets another. In this view of our age of information overload, email is the modern equivalent of herpes: the ‘gift’ that keeps on giving. And like its viral cousin, it isn’t a nice kind of gift.

Of course, email glut doesn’t just happen; the modern work place is structured to encourage traceability and a mentality of ‘list clearing’ that email supposedly supports. A typical behavior is to see an email, reply to it and file it away as ‘done’. Sometimes the subject of the email really is done. But more often done is relative; the written and disembodied nature of email often creates unnecessary churn that results in miscommunication and unnecessary escalation. That filed message suddenly becomes part of a long thread of back-and-forth messages that quickly moves the done to undone. In talking to colleagues, most agree that email is a time suck, that it interferes with productivity and that it doesn’t usually resolve issues efficiently.

So why are we all still using it?

I think (speculative thinking alert) the main reasons boil down to the following reasons, more or less:

  • Change is hard. Corporate culture has become powered by email and convincing people that work is still possible without it isn’t easy. It takes a bit of bravery to think differently about processes, especially in large organizations, and entire business ecosystems are built on email. But even in a digital company it is possible to let go of things that are (arguably) holding us back. Atos (80,000 employees) has made the shift. You can follow how the change is going online on their Zero Email blog. If a company that large can do it, why can’t you?
  • Corporate culture rewards traceability. Our email accounts have turned into de facto filing cabinets that are used to prove we’ve completed a task, to trace a conversation or to index a project’s details. With improved search features, email software has encouraged us to save everything in case we might need it later. In theory this file-cabinet approach to email makes sense. The problem is that most email is not actually meaningful or useful. Most of what we do over email would be better handled over IM, for instance. How many messages do you receive that simply say something like ‘sounds good’ or ‘thanks’ (I had 150 of those messages last week)? Using email for complex concepts that absolutely need to be traced can make sense… but understanding when to use another form of communication takes practice.
  • Resistance to using alternate tools. A lot of people use email because they don’t understand or don’t have access to other, better tools for quick communication. In some businesses chat is restricted or limited, or worse, reviewed by security administrators to ensure the conversations are only business-related. IM isn’t a magic bullet, but it can save a lot of time especially in quick, question-based interactions (or logistical ones). Phones, chat boards, and collaboration tools (base camp – which I hate for other reasons – or Jira) can be much more efficient than email, if people would use them judiciously. The most effective way to have some conversations is actually face-to-face (shock, horror!), but some people avoid it because they fear talking to someone directly will seem confrontational (check the etymology for that word… it doesn’t have roots in anything at all negative!). Maybe a bit of confrontation would do us all a bit of good?
  • Email is innately passive (and often passive-aggressive). Because email is written (not spoken) it allows us to take time to carefully consider our words and to ensure that we have expressed ourselves the way we intended. Or at least that’s the myth. We have probably all had experiences, though, where our carefully worded missive was misinterpreted (or maybe more accurately, just interpreted…) thereby causing an unintended firestorm. A lot of us hide behind our emails in difficult situations, carefully crafting iron-clad responses that we think will cover our backs in tricky situations. The false sense of safety that email provides is seductive…but in my opinion it is a false seduction. I learned the hard way a long time ago that using email to handle confrontational situations never ends well. Now, when I get a nasty email I often draft a nasty response and immediately delete it. It feels good to get my unproductive response out there… but ultimately it is more productive to stop the email train as soon as it gets confrontational and meet face to face.

So, how can we take back control and resist the undertow of email? It might not be the healthiest solution but the following anecdote might provide some insight.

My move back to the US was fairly traumatic (in the literal sense of the word) and incredibly intense. I spent the first few months playing catch up on basics ranging from finding a place to live to adjusting to my new(old) job in a changed work environment. As a result I made an inadvertent change that has made my life immeasurably better.

I stopped replying to email.

Or rather, I stopped replying quickly. At first, I slowed because I couldn’t keep up. I was drowning in an intense situation at work and the logistics of my relocation were borderline overwhelming. I stopped replying to email quickly not because I had the bright idea to create change, but because change was brewing all around me and email was a casualty. The first few weeks of slowing down were excruciating. I found myself more panicked than normal when I checked my email because the volume of unanswered/filtered/deleted email was so massive.

Over time, however something magical began to happen.

The volume and pace of emails I was receiving dramatically declined. And as a result, my email became more manageable. It probably wasn’t the healthiest way to slow my personal email flow, but it worked. Now, I have a much healthier and sustainable relationship with my personal email (although it is a work in progress… like any addict, I have to keep training myself to resist the immediate-response behavior I spent years perfecting).

For years I’ve had a reputation for being an incredibly speedy and super efficient email responder. My speed in replying was falsely seen as a symbol of efficiency. Colleagues at the university where I used to work would often ask for advice from me about how to manage their email. The truth is I was perpetuating an unhealthy and unsustainable pace that was fed by my anxiety. And although I’ve managed to slow the pace in my personal email, my work email is not nearly as under control. But I’m going to work hard to incrementally change the way I use email at work to try to slow the pace and to work more effectively.

Lest this post be misunderstood, I should say that I don’t think email is always bad. I think it is often the right tool to use. The problem, is that it is sometimes the only tool that we use. Email is a bit like a sped up version of the old fashion letter sent through the mail. It is a one-sided missive that is not inherently conversational. I think email should be part of an ecosystem of productivity/communication tools and used judiciously. I think the way forward is to vastly limit our use of email at work so that we can build stronger, deeper relationships based primarily on conversation and collaboration. The research suggests limiting our email might make us better at our jobs (and less stressed by our emails) and therefore more productive. What are we all afraid of? I think it’s time to kick our email addiction.

For some good guidance on how to use email effectively, check out the Harvard Business Review’s article about how to manage email overload.




Stephanie April 5, 2013 Reply

Great piece. I am an outlook power user – mostly because face-to-face is very rare in my work, both with clients and my employees. Probably need to get more IM set-up for staff and I definitely need to consolidate my emails with clients more. I will add a different view: always having access to my email let’s me spend about 6 extra hours a day with my kid several days a week. If something blows up, I know about it and can respond. Or just check in between games, etc. I couldn’t keep my current clients and still be with him every day without the flexibility of email.

peterspetralia April 6, 2013 Reply

You’re totally right that email is useful for distributed teams (sometimes), especially with clients… but I think it is worth questioning if email is always the right tool.

In terms of allowing you more time with your son: I totally get that and it might really give you more time with him. This is really getting into different territory about how technology impacts our daily lives (and notions of intimacy) but… A lot of research suggests that the quality of the time you’re describing is actually greatly reduced because your attention is split. Having an always-on mentality with email turns it into more than just a situational interrupter (when a mini fire emerges that requires a response right away). In this example email becomes like a low-grade fever that subtly degrades your relationships without having an immediate or intense result. Sherry Turkle talks a lot about that (and I’ve written about it a lot on this blog). I’m not 100% sure how I feel about it because I know what you’re talking about, but I am trying to resist the urge be always on with work because I personally find it really hard to set boundaries (as a workaholic).

David April 7, 2013 Reply

Excellent piece. I am going to circulate in my office ( via email ??? ) and discuss how to implement it.

stephanie April 7, 2013 Reply

For Peter:

Yeah, my attention is split but I dont see that as a negative. I have worked hard and found a great balance of work & motherhood. I actually find myself much more present with him for longer periods of time since pushing through to the other side of workoholic phase. Made my peace with not being all things to all people and not being a perfectionist with my work. It isn’t so much “always on” as 30 minutes of focused time with my kid, then 5 minutes of email. rinse and repeat. the 4 year old attention span TOTALLY lends itself to checking into work when we transition to the next project/activity. and the alternatives are FAR worse than the careful juggling of my attentions: i could either close my firm and not work until he goes to school or put him in all-day day-care or nanny-care. this situation works great for us: i work about 40 hours a week with 25 hours of childcare and for the other 15 hours i am present with him but not totally unavailable to my clients. havent had this low of a stress level in YEARS. decades, maybe. Partially because i DO get to spend SO much time with my kid and yet still get to keep my firm. And the issues I worked through had nothing to do with the medium of email and more to do with my previous need to exceed expectations with my work. Having the kid certainly helped me shift my priorities since i had no choice but to do a really crappy job for a couple of years. I do protect my nights and weekends more than before (but still email when needed!) and take true vacations with the family from work; things I never did even before the kid when it would have been SO much easier. And I am in the planning stages for an 8 week sabbatical later this year.

All that to say – our priorities will manifest themselves in our actions. And I wouldnt trade the speed and flexibility of email communication for any other method at this point in my life/career.

peterspetralia April 7, 2013 Reply

It is SO good that you’ve found a way to make email serve you (instead of the other way around). I definitely think it can be a powerful tool and glad to hear that it’s making your life as a professional and a mother manageable. That is the best possible outcome!

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