On email, but not as we knew it

How many people have received an email from someone asking if you’ve seen their email? Is there anything crazier? That’s just people making work about the work. Time to back up a it before getting back to email…

Office software has traditionally adhered to what I like to refer to as ‘faster horses syndrome’. This was Henry Ford’s response to being asked his views on consultation; he clearly thought that if if he asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘more of the same’ – and not have come up with the motor car. So it is with one of those quotes circulating recently – the one that says something like “no amount of continuous improvement would have turned a candle into a lightbulb”.

My point here is that it’s pretty much replicated what came before. A blank Word doc is literally an electronic representation of a sheet of A4. An Excel worksheet is an imitation of a ledger. A set of powerpoint slides reproduce electronically a stack of transparencies used on OHPs. Yes, remember those? And so it was inevitable that the icons and layout of email programmes still resembles memos (another for the over 40s) and calendars faithfully reproduce, well, diaries. And yes, there are still some who use paper versions of those. I’m rather labouring the point here but they are still electronic mimics of ways of the ways of working that preceded them decades ago. Isn’t it absurd that we are still working within a paradigm established over thirty years ago – the precursors of what became Microsoft Office in 1990 had been around since the early 1980s?

What I think is happening is this. The tools are not changing, but the way we are using them is. This applies particularly to email. Exactly what is it we are trying to achieve by sending emails? We’re rarely crafting memo’s for action and response a few days later. We may be sharing documents – but there are surely better and less storage-intensive means of sharing that 10mb presentation to all 250 employees (Dropbox, Basecamp, Slack, Evernote etc).

As millennials enter the workplace and force us to rethink our relationship with technology, I think email is increasingly becoming an instant messenger, for the workplace, the corporate WhatsApp through which questions are asked, opinions shared, backs covered, groups convened, ‘could-you-just’s’ asked…

Emails are getting shorter and their response rate is getting quicker. If letters are the slowest form of communication and messages the quickest, emails are now much nearer the IM end of this scale. This isn’t because the technology has got quicker, rather our expectations changed. When you worked in a world when you sent a memo and expected a response within 7 or ten working days, an email response within three was considered quick, even though the technology would have enabled it to me much quicker.

Now the paradigm is shifting. Our expectations have changed, not the technology. With this comes the expectation that responses are near-instantaneous too. So to keep in the loop and keep up with demand people become slaves to their email. In a recent survey I conducted with a colleague we found that 84% of people responded to an email as soon as they received it. What were they doing at that point? Sitting there, waiting for it to arrive?

How many companies take a stance on communication, offer guidance, ideas? Some solutions like Slack and others attempt to provide alternatives with a range of communication and information sharing methods within them. But generally, as our research has borne out, people are using old tools in new ways, and it’s damaging both their productivity and their wellbeing.

It’s time for a re-think. Time to do things differently.

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