Why tame the email beast?

Is 347 emails a lot to answer in one week? I don't know but that's what I did. I get about 200 per day – a lot of which I just either read because they're subscriptions to info or ones that don't really need any reply beyond things like 'thanks' or 'good to hear'. The 347 required me to think carefully, for example, reviewing someone's document, working out how I can do a joint presentation with someone and have it come across as seamless teamwork (I'm working on three of those at the moment each with a different person), responding to a request for information which means hunting through stuff.

I got curious about emails this week because various things caused me to think that we've got stuck in the notion that emails are not part of 'the work'. It reminds me of the staff room in the college I used to teach in where we would say 'teaching would be great if it weren't for the students.' Wouldn't it be less stressful all round if we accepted that the way a lot of the work gets done is via emails and other types of social media channel and then designed our lives and our work accepting the reality of emails, IM, tweets, etc. etc? They are not going to go away at least in the immediate although they may change form.

I liked the nugget in the Lucy Kellaway series on The History of Office Life that mentioned the horror people felt at the introduction of the telephone which they thought would constantly interrupt things. 'New technology including the telephone, telegraph, typewriters, adding machines, and even filing cabinets revolutionized office work in the late 19th century. In particular the telephone was looked on suspiciously in the UK. Britain's chief post office engineer, Sir William Preece, told a House of Commons committee : "I have one in my office, but more for show. If I want to send a message, I employ a boy to take it."'

Isn't all this stuff I've been reading a lot recently about 'taming the email beast' simply not knowing how to seamlessly integrate it into a working day and/or a current version of the various personal time management techniques common a couple of decades ago? Some of us may remember Filofax , Time Manager International, Daytimer, and their ilk. We carted around small binders with our tasks in AB and C lists – and were careful to handle every piece of paper only once. Some of us, including me, still use theirs. And indeed, I was scoffed at the other day for my Neanderthal behavior in using mine.

What might be different now from the paper days is that we're handling a greater volume of interactions that are coming through ever more channels. But that is the reality. It is 'the work'. And there are different ways of organizing and managing this work. I'm not sure it is enough to leave it to individuals to grapple with the stress of it on their own. One of my colleagues responded to an invitation I'd made to try out the Anybot with the email response, 'I'm sorry I had all good intentions to have a go, but I'm just swamped. I've just topped 1000 unopened e-mails.' Maybe I read stress and emotion into the text but I've had a prior face to face conversation with him on the topic so I think I'm on safe ground.

Another colleague just deletes, without opening, emails from people 'I'm not interested in'. Ruthless or sensible, I wonder? I guess it sends a virtual message to people who don't get a response from her and she doesn't have to type anything. The volume of digital communication is really hard for people to cope with.

There are numerous software packages coming to market that promise to help you beat email overload. Information Week recently reviewed ten of them. I think they're very attractive in principle – but I'm a fan of self-help things like that. But they are not enough. If you are an organizational member trying to beat email overload on your own you can only be partially successful – you don't have the support mechanisms and infrastructure there – even if you're allowed to download the software.

A better approach it seems to me is to recognize that organization designs (and many of the people in them) are locked into outdated ways of thinking about how work gets done. They have layered digital communication into and onto old models and are now trying to solve an 'overload problem' rather than seeing these expanding communication channels as offering possibilities to totally re-think how work flows.

Organizations that mandate a 'no e-mail Friday', for example – are probably doing it with the best of intentions but they may, in fact, be adding more stress to their employees because the emails are piling up and need to be dealt with on Monday.

What a different organization design might look like – one where its employee accepted huge volumes of digital communication as a normal and had good techniques for managing this effectively, efficiently, and without feeling unduly stressed – I'm not sure yet. Maybe it's something that the MIX Digital Freedom Challenge contenders will pick up on? (Maybe I'll be a contender). I rather the like the 'email only on Fridays' approach suggested by Graham Allcott. It's closer to organizing around acceptance of the reality. And I have another thought that was triggered by a conversation we had during the week (via email) on distraction and open plan offices.

Someone in the conversation mentioned a recent piece in The Economist, on the value of "inaction" and "laziness" which hints at the idea of managing work differently. In the organizational world there is a lot of talk about collaboration and designing collaborative workplaces – to get to a 'culture of collaboration' (whatever that is), but much less discussion on reflection, pauses and time for thought to get to a 'culture of reflection', (I've never had a client say they wanted this type of culture). If we could design workplaces with really engaging internal reflective space for employees and work flows that integrated the volume of communication into the normal – but different from current -flow we might all feel better for it.

Overall I'm skeptical about the notion of emails being a beast that must be tamed. I think developing organizational designs and working norms around its effective use is what's called for. What's your view? Should we accept the reality of huge volumes of communication and design organizations and develop employees to manage them? If so your ideas on how to do this would be welcome.

NOTE: In pursuing the line of thought on reflection and reflective space I came across some nice work on designing external reflective spaces, labyrinths, healing gardens, water features mainly into hospital environments but they should also be part of standard office design. I also found a certain amount of evidence suggesting that 'mindfulness' practices – the personal mental equivalent of a physical reflective space is a performance enhancer. Take a look at Oxford University's Mindfulness Centre for more on this.

See also my February 13 2012 blog piece on emails and writing with which offers more thoughts on the topic.

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