I recently got a message from a client who was all excited that a consultancy that works with her organization had announced that from 2013 the consultancy would no longer be using e-mail for internal communications. There was a hopeful implicit subtext that perhaps e-mail was on the way out, and that she wouldn’t have to deal with her e-mail inbox after all. She–and the consultancy in question–are not alone. Other companies are experimenting with shutting down – at least temporarily – the flow of e-mails to give people some time to do other work, and more and more people I speak to are complaining that e-mail is keeping them from their real work.
What is happening here? Has e-mail really gotten so out of control that we need to stop using it altogether?
I’m not so sure. A bit like mobile phones or cars, e-mails are not–in themselves–the problem. Indeed, the use of e-mail has grown quickly because it offers so many benefits: it allows for asynchronous work; is faster for many things than a phone call (and when is the last time you actually reached someone you were calling on the first try?); and allows tracking of decisions, hand offs and agreements. Not such a bad thing really.
So, if the medium of e-mail is not the problem, what is? Part of the problem is a fundamental mis-identification of what work is. As the primary means of communication in the business world, e-mails are a big part of work in the 21st century. At the moment, asking your employees to stop using e-mail is like asking them to do all their meetings as a game of Charades. Holding meetings in mime might be amusing for a (very) short time, but it would have a pretty significant impact on the effectiveness of communication. Similarly, stopping using e-mail would provide some short term relief, but overall the effect would probably not be positive. Of course, you could go over to some version of social media or a chat-based system, but that will not reduce the number and complexity of the topics that need handling.
Saying no e-mail is a solution to the ‘problem’ of e-mail, but it is a solution to the wrong problem. I think there are a couple of misunderstandings at the bottom of all of this: one is believing that e-mails are not work, that they are a distraction from ‘real’ work. If they are not real work, then it makes sense to get booked into meetings from 8am to 8pm. With a diary like that, e-mail starts to show up as a problem as it is consistently being handled at midnight.
The other misunderstanding is related to the above; allocating insufficient time to think through all of the new stuff that arrives each day–be it e-mail, voice-mail, meeting notes, or great ideas about moving a project forward. Many seem to think that they are only working when they are ‘doing’ things: going to meetings, making phone calls, being out and on the move. That is most certainly work, but the thing that makes all of those things more effective is taking the time to think through what needs doing, and who is going to do it, in what order. Without that, we are just running and hoping that the thinking will get done on the fly. Some of it will, but there is a quality of thinking that simply cannot happen in the spaces between meetings and in the back of a cab on the way to a client meeting.
We see that the people who have the greatest sense of control–and are best able to prioritize what they do next, and trust the choice–are giving themselves something like an hour a day to think through the new ‘stuff’ that arrives in their world each day. This is not buffer time–it is the work that makes sense of all the other work.
So, you can get rid of e-mail and do your meetings in mime if you want to, but the real solution to the ‘problem’ of e-mail is to account for the time that is necessary to get control of new ‘stuff’ each day. Without that thinking time, we are merely monkeys–constantly in motion, but not terribly productive.