Everyone who regularly feels overwhelmed by their email would agree that there is a problem. The hundreds of articles about the issue typically make the same assumption and are wrong. Writer after writer bemoans email as inefficient and an obstacle to productivity. The problem isn’t that email is inefficient, rather, it is too efficient and knows no boundaries.
If email wasn’t productive, only a fraction of today’s emails would be sent. It allows today’s worker to answer more questions from, and give more directions to, their colleagues in a shorter amount of time than past generations could have imagined possible.
In years gone by, work was done at the office. To continue working at home meant loading paper files into a briefcase, a process that put natural limits of how much could be done out-of-hours. Even if a large number of memos were written, replies were not going to be received until they went through the internal mail or postal service.
I’ve written before about using email more effectively (see Reclaim email as a business tool). While there is much that we can do individually, I believe that email is the sharp edge of a technology wedge that challenges our fundamental assumptions about the way we work.
This technology wedge has removed many natural barriers to working as much as we choose. Many argue that the freedom to work puts the onus of responsibility back on the individual. This may be true, but we have not invested in developing skills for individuals to know how much work is enough. We also need to decide, as a society, what attributes we want to encourage in our most successful workers.
A competitive economy means that the most ambitious constantly outdo each other to deliver value for their workplace. Many see pulling-back, by putting boundaries in place, as reducing their competitiveness in a tough world.
Recognising this, some countries have attempted to put in place limits, most famous is the French 35-hour working week. The challenges of global employers and an economic downturn have arguably blunted the impact of limiting the hours that individuals work. In a world where work and play can be divided into seconds as an email is checked while waiting in a supermarket queue, what is the meaning of working hours anyway?
If countries can’t put limits in place, some employers are taking matters into their own hands in an attempt to improve the wellbeing of their staff. For instance, Daimler employees return from leave with an empty inbox.
Alternatives to email
Given that email overload is such a problem, it is no wonder that there are a wide range of alternatives that have been suggested. Workflow and Enterprise Content Management (ECM) have been high on the list for a long time now yet neither has made much of a dent on our inboxes.
Perhaps the issue is the shear flexibility of email and the cost of trying to configure workflow or ECM solutions to each individual use case. They definitely have an important role to play but the amount of email they actually displace is relatively small (and in fact they rely on email as their notification mechanisms).
More recently social media has been heralded as the email killer. As much as messaging on these platforms is both convenient and used extensively, they have not replaced the inbox. In fact, more and more are configuring their email clients to be their interface into the messaging stream.
The reason that each of these technologies have so comprehensively failed in their quest to rid us of email overload is that email works really well if your goal is to do more work. It is however encouraging us to work too much and facilitating a form of communication that is often confrontational and can damage the feeling of wellbeing of staff and relationships between employees.
To replace email, designers of new solutions have to throw out their old assumption of email being an inefficient tool. Rather than trying to make email more efficient they need to focus on fixing the three real issues: 1) email is efficient but overwhelming; 2) there is no way of naturally limiting the amount of work hitting our inboxes; and 3) job sharing and delegation while absent does not work well.
Before launching headlong into building new products, there is a huge opportunity for research into each of these issues. How can the problems be measured? Which organisations are better at reducing their impact and what are the attributes of the solutions they have used? Is there any evidence that junk email is actually taking a material amount of time for the average worker? What are the health impacts of information overload and does it matter to society?
Just because existing email alternatives have missed the point, by assuming that email is somehow unproductive, that doesn’t mean there aren’t better solutions. Freed to look to email as a productivity tool, the focus will move from email filtering and simplification to workload management and sharing.
We need to decide as professionals how we want to work. Should time away from the office be protected? Do we really know how much work we are really doing in an average week? Is it OK for those seeking to get ahead to simply do more work than anyone else?
Those of us in the middle of our careers are the first generation to work electronically. As pioneers we have a responsibility to set the tone for generations to come. Will we sentence our children to work in white collar sweatshops or realise the potential of technology to create better workplaces for everyone?