Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why email is not stealing time from real work.....

Lately there have been a lot of critique against email and also a lot of ideas on how to improve email. For instance, the idea from the company Shortmail.com about a new form of really short emails. And the idea of an "email charter" by the famous internet thinker Chris Anderson, or "Work smart: conquering your email inbox" by Gina Trapani at Fastcompany.

The assumption, or fact, behind that all these attempts is that the number of emails are increasing and take up way too much of our working time. Email is seen as a "time-suck". The conclusion for most is that we need to reduce the number of emails, or make them shorter, or easier to work with, so we do not have to spend so much time with our emails.

Even though all this sounds rational and sound, I am not sure that the basic premise is correct. I agree that the number of emails have been increasing, but I am also quite sure that reading and answering emails today is not necessary time wasted or time taken away from "real" work. To "work" with your emails is in most cases real work, it is not something else than work. When I work with my inbox, I do real work. A very small number of the emails I "work" with are not important at all (apart form some occasional spam) or are not about something that is a genuine part of my work.

So, an increasing number of emails is not necessary the same as work distraction.

There are of course some consequences of reducing the use of email. First of all, we could have to go back to a system where meetings and close geographical location is a requirement for "work". But that will not be accepted of course. So many things of  what I do when I am "working" is considered to be normal and required for someone in my position, and is not possible to do without email.

We can of course use other technologies for communication, such as social media and other commonly used technologies. However, many of these new technologies are not specifically designed for asynchronous communication that leave a clear trail and a creates a record and is not very useable for ongoing professional communication, which probably is why email completely dominates among professionals. Email offers a functionality that is hard to replace.

Anyway, enough of this. I truly find email to be an extraordinary tool for "work" (and I am consciously using the word "work" here instead of "communication"). Of course, this does not mean that email can not be improved, for instance, the world would be better if we all followed the proposed rules in the "email charter" but that is another issue.

5 comments:

Kevin Makice said...

The big problem with email may simply be the overt focus on the technology and channel, at the expense of organizational context and relationships.

With SociaLens, we've encountered many gripes about email. So much so, Christian Briggs coined terms for different flavors of inbox overload. However, digging deeper than the tool, we always find interpersonal dynamics and skills issues at the heart of the problem. People who took a long time to adapt to email are often resistent to changing to other tools. Policies that dictate "rules of use" for email typically neglect the wide variance in how individuals and groups within an organization communicate. Raising the digital fluency—the information, interaction, and innovation skills that individuals need to help them do their jobs—addresses these problems where they are.

Christian Briggs said...

Hi Erik, you and your readers might find the flavors of overload we found interesting, and perhaps helpful. The terms were our attempt to categorize the gripes that came from 50 people in 10 different organizations of all types:

Firehose Overload—More information coming in than the person can physically or mentally process. This tends to happen after significant changes in personnel, tools, internal policy, or external behavior.

Too Much Hay, Not Enough Needles Overload—A nagging sense that a person has missed an important needle in their information haystack. This form of overload usually comes after experiencing the Firehose for a while, as a person tries to deal with how to filter through all that information to make it useful.

Sinbox Overload—A nagging guilt over unread emails and other messages. This form of overload is typically a byproduct of rejection of the Firehose as useful.

Interestingly, only two of the 50 people we interviewed said that they did not feel overloaded. One said it was her job to swim in lots of information. The other had taken very draconian measures (only reading emails in the morning, etc.) to manage it.

Phoebe Sengers said...

I agree that we are 'working' when we are processing email, but there is a qualitative difference in the kinds of work one does when one gets to the point of spending 25-50% of one's day in one's inbox. A lot of the work I do is filtering out the irrelevant stuff to get to the very small percentage of stuff that I can actually commit to spend the time to do. This is painful work because much of it involves deciding who to disappoint. And saying "no, no, no, no, no" does not feel like I am getting My Real Work That I Care About done, although it certainly has become a key part of my job.

Yes, there is some stuff for which email is great. But to simply say "you're working" is side-stepping the main issue - working on what, for whom, and why.

Peter Axel Nielsen said...

I completely agree with your view that working with the inbox is also work. My own experience is that I measure how busy I am by the size of my inbox. It is thus easy to confuse being too busy with inbox overload. Along the same line of thinking I don't my calendar app if I have too many meetings. BTW emails often save me going to more meetings.

micah_gideon said...

I, too, agree with this view. Getting rid of the inbox does not equate to more time for other (real?) work, but rather means more time spent on the logistics of trying to reach the people who have the information/resources you need to do your 'real' work. People living in a society will always need to communicate and we, being human, will continue to try to enhance/improve/extend our capability to do so.