NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It may seem odd today, but email was supposed to be the tool that set us all free. That’s hard to imagine in an era when inboxes dominate our at-work lives and smartphones neatly obliterate the distinction between home and office, but once upon a time, the promise of immediate, asynchronous communication was huge.
As I sit here, with an inbox that recently broke 10,000 messages, those days seem very long ago.
Some companies believe it’s time they put their genie back in its bottle. An increasing number have begun to look at all the time they spend managing e-mail and ask… is this still worth it?
The evidence against keeps piling up, and it’s hard to ignore. Email overload has become one of the biggest time wasters in the modern office, sucking up hours just in sorting through the form of communication before even getting to the content. What was supposed to save us from endless meetings short on signal and full of noise has become itself a roar of static.
This even in an age where we increasingly have control over spam. Promises to “Satisfay h3r 2niTe!” aren’t the problem; it’s the estimated 108.7 billion e-mails sent and received by business users every day. Those require at least a moment to review.
And the disruptions add up. According to a study conducted by global consulting firm McKinsey, workers dedicate 28% of their week to e-mail. Penn State Hershey Medical Group pediatrician Dr. Ian Paul even published an experiment where he kept track of his messages over the course of one academic year. The result was over 2,000 mass distributions from his medical center alone.
Assuming about 30 seconds to read each message, based on average salaries, Paul put the cost of those mass mailings at $1,641 in lost time per physician. At an institution with 629 doctors that came to $1 million per year just on colleagues reminding each other about this week’s soup in the cafeteria.
That’s a conservative estimate. The real cost of email overload comes from its distracting effects.
The myth of multitasking is an issue that psychologists have begun unpacking since computers created the always-on office. Nowhere is it more present than with e-mail, where virtually everyone is expected to have his inbox quietly running in the background ready to demand attention at a moment’s notice. (Indeed, as anyone who has gotten captured in an email “chat thread” has experienced, the idea of e-mail as asynchronous has increasingly fallen by the wayside.)
It’s a steady drip of distractions, one that the University of California suggests leaves today’s office worker with no more than 11 minutes between interruptions and needing as much as 25 minutes to resume concentration fully. By the numbers that’s an entire generation kept perpetually at arm's-length from its work.
The consequences for performance can be devastating, with crumbling work product and higher error rates at every level. Although estimates vary, studies have alternately found that distracted workers make between 20 to 100% more mistakes. Even merely anticipating an interruption can have that effect.
For the convenience of not having to make a phone call or send a fax we’ve trapped ourselves in a Kurt Vonnegut story.
As the CEO of Learning as Leadership Shayne Hughes pointed out, it’s like trying to drink from fire hoses we’ve collectively pointed at each other.
Part of the problem is the frictionless contact. As anyone who’s fired off an angry email to a boss or lover knows, email eliminates virtually entirely the barrier between thought and communication. Clacking out a few words then hitting send takes seconds and no personal interaction. There’s no skin in the game, no time for second thoughts and no emotional investment in awkward conversations. Most dangerously, perhaps, there's no way to gauge someone's reaction throughout the communication.
“If you and I are going to sit down and talk, it’s because you have an agenda point that’s worth our time,” Hughes said. Scheduling a meeting or even picking up the phone takes some level of commitment while sending along an e-mail takes none. “Something comes in and I think, ‘Hey I should talk to Eric about this and I just hit forward.’”
Now, Hughes said, he’s forced the recipient to curate their conversation. Instead of remembering to bring an issue up later he gets to make that someone else’s problem.
The result is a barrage of useless forwards, newsletters and other information of momentary interest, all clicked along for no better reason than that there’s no good reason not to.
Can an office actually function without it?
Frustration drove Shayne Hughes to take a dramatic step back in 2012: for one week he banned internal email altogether at his company.
It was a self-described act of desperation.
“[Email] was all consuming,” Hughes said. “Trying to stay on top of it took up a lot of time and kept me in a perpetual state of heightened stress to be on top of things... It’s a huge time sink and I felt like that was very present in our company.”
The real challenge for Learning as Leadership was the ratio of time to productivity. As Hughes put it, for all of the hours that he and his employees spent managing their inboxes he never felt like they got much actually done. Hours disappeared into just sorting messages before he could even attend to the substance that they brought in.
“A lot of times I was having the experience of leaving at the end of the day or the end of the week feeling worn out by the stress of things, but also not feeling like I had accomplished anything useful,” Hughes said.
In fact, in a moment of cognitive dissonance, one of the biggest challenges of Hughes’s email ban was the hole that it left in his schedule. Without an inbox to manage he found himself at a loss for what to actually do with his time.
The employees met this proposal with something akin to horror. Workplace function and culture has been so thoroughly rewritten around computers that it’s almost hard to imagine what people actually did during the day before these devices, no less what we would do now once unplugged.
“I think it freaked a lot of people out,” he said, “because a lot of people get work done through e-mail. They send things back and forth and ask for scheduling and move things forward. The fact that I was taking away this conduit of work flow it felt like it was all of a sudden going to cause things to stop.”
There was a sense among employees in the office that they could not function without e-mail.”
So, looking back, how does Hughes feel about his results? They’re a mixed bag.
One of the greatest things that he and his team learned, Hughes said, is that email is a lousy tool for communication. It’s excellent for basic exchanges of information and data, but far too often people rely on email as a surrogate for conversations. Once Hughes’s staff couldn’t create long message chains but actually had to schedule a meeting or pick up the phone, not only did they choose more carefully what was worth their time but they also became more effective communicators.
So, as far as lessons go he said, that was a big one.
“I think what happens when you remove e-mail is it ends up slowing the pace down,” he said. “Email and responding to email is like an agitated knee jerk reaction space. I send a note, I get a note back. It’s very quick and it doesn’t really lend itself to thoughtfulness. [Instead] it keeps us in this quick paced energy.”
“When you take that out of the system you don’t have that constant stimulation anymore,” he added/
Unfortunately, Learning as Leadership has also run up against the practical limits of conducting a modern business without email. The experiment that he ran nearly two and a half years ago has aged relatively well, but Hughes said that he sees himself and his employees falling back into some of their old bad habits.
The company, however, has also grown since 2012, and that’s part of the challenge. A business that wants to create a cultural shift away from the fire hose has to also juggle the reality of the 21st Century. Offices are increasingly far flung, digital collaboration is important and more people work from home than ever before.
The level of micromanagement required to impose an intra-office ban on those relationships would be, to put it mildly, intense. Instead the best solution seems to be cultural, finding a way to encourage people to turn down the volume both for their own sakes and everyone else’s.
Hughes isn’t optimistic about it happening.
“People do this for a reason, we’re addicted to it," he said. "I get the high of giving the answer. I get the high of feeling needed. When I’m too busy to be strategic, when I’m too busy to have the difficult conversation, I’m actually in my comfort zone.”
As such, email is part of this unconscious avoidance ego-mechanism.
"And that’s pretty rampant in organizations," Hughes says. So for e-mail to be relegated to its proper place, which is a tool that is part of a very limited set of communication tools, that would be a major shift in the right direction, according to Hughes.
Can technology save us?
Don Brown, CEO of Interactive Intelligence, sees a brighter future. Although he shares Hughes’ growing skepticism about email’s role in the office, he believes he can help fix that.
“What I have come to resent on behalf of myself and my employees, is the way that our priorities are dictated by a totally random email inbox,” Brown said. “Rather than coming in and jotting down for five minutes, ‘O.K. what are the most important things I need to do today,’ I just get sucked in."
The catch to an inbox is that messages get ranked chronologically. The result is a morning to-do list that’s sorted by order of when something came in, not necessarily by how important it is. What we’re working on at any given moment has nothing necessarily to do with what’s valuable, it just got there first.
“The facility of email is both a blessing and a curse,” Brown said, echoing the frustration felt by so many. The medium is so easy that we reach for the keyboard when we might otherwise have picked up the phone or visited face-to-face. “It’s not that it’s not valuable, it’s just that it’s not necessarily the most valuable thing that you could do.”
Brown, whose company is in the process of developing a collaboration tool that he hopes will help offices shake their addiction, sees this as as much of a technological problem as a cultural one. People are using e-mail as a communication and information sharing platform not because it’s well suited for that, it’s aggressively not well suited, but because it’s the best they have. Workers are expressing what they want to do and using the best workaround they’ve got.
So the solution, he says, is to give them the right tools for the job. Something that combines the shared workspace, ease of communication and group communication that e-mail offers, albeit imperfectly.
“You can see the need through the proliferation of all sorts of e-mail alternatives that are arising today,” Brown said. “You have all sorts of instant messaging systems over the last few years” [such as the recently, virally popular, Slack].
These chat room style tools have begun to reduce the reliance on e-mail already, he continued, but “unfortunately they’ve kind of grown in a haphazard way. They become these additional uncontrolled channels, so that now not only do I have my email inbox to check but I also have these chatrooms to check and these wikis and maybe other sources to check.”
Brown’s vision is one in which email suffers the same fate as voicemail and the fax machine, an increasingly diminished technology relegated to, if not obsolescence, certainly a vastly reduced role in our daily life. He also thinks it can, and will, happen organically. If people have better options they’ll use them. Eventually as the collaborative and conversational elements get stripped to other platforms, email will return to its original purpose: short communication and data sharing.
After all, it’s not as if we haven’t seen that happen before. Each generation of technology, as it’s been passed by the new, has gotten increasingly dusty.
But will it work?
A new platform might solve the problem of too many messages, but there’ll have to be a cultural shift that comes with it. Creating a shared workspace online certainly might help to reduce the torrent, but the emails that get cut out might be the very messages we actually want to see. As Hughes noted, in an average afternoon spent sorting through the clutter, how many messages are actually substantive comments on a document or current project?
For most people, not many. The bulk of messages are just, well... stuff. Technology might cut down on the need to bounce thoughts around about the memo, but will it actually end the 17 message long chains announcing that the FTC is about to make everyone’s cell phone numbers public? (It’s not.)
Options like chat rooms might help reduce that urge to treat e-mail like a space for conversation, but at the cost of perhaps an increased perception that stark text on a screen is actually an effective form of communication. (It’s not.) What’s more, they don’t solve the problem of the interrupted worker; indeed, chat rooms may only make that problem worse, carving up our concentration into still more minutely fragmented and useless chunks.
Does it really matter which icon is dancing at the bottom of the screen when the real problem is that we can’t focus on the task in front of us?
Still, there’s room for hope. Technology can’t cure all, but it might be the first step that leads to others. As the legitimate uses for e-mail get moved to other, less intrusive, platforms people might begin to naturally move away from it.
Brown believes that that’s how the office can develop. Today the pendulum has swung so far that in many offices almost all communication happens through the inbox, some, such as law firms and investment banks, adopting the informal maxim “don’t visit if you can call, don’t call if you can e-mail.” If even a few points of contact can be pulled free, a shift in culture might do the rest. If collaboration on a project doesn’t start through the e-mail system, someone might pick up the phone with a question instead of hopping on the existing thread and the change will spread from there.
It’s nice to think there’s reason to hope, because what we have right now doesn’t seem to be working.
-Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.