Dodging the Email Tsunami

April 19, 2008

I’m always interested in articles that deal with managing email, since it seems to be the scourge of modern life. Staying on top of email is a daily struggle, and I’ve known a number of people who have “intentionally by accident” marked their entire inbox as “read” so that they could start fresh. That’s been a tempting thought to me a few times, but recently I managed to scramble to the top of my pile–I won’t even mention how many emails were sitting there unread. It took quite a few hours of effort, spread over many days, but my inbox is back under control.

I’m curious about one suggestion the article proposes, about keeping your email program off except for two scheduled times a day. I’ve heard of that strategy before, and never implemented it, since I thought it was not realistic. But I think perhaps it is, and I think I’m going to make myself a guinea pig to this method. I will set up some time in the morning and the afternoon–I’ll even book it in my calendar–and I will attend to whatever email comes at the allotted time, otherwise it waits.

Will it work? Who knows. I’ll find out. But I’m anticipating it being a challenge to colleagues and our collective reliance on email as an immediate communications tool. People often expect a response ASAP. Management sends a missive with immediate instructions, or alerts of one kind or another are distributed via email with the expectation that people are reading them within seconds. I’m curious about the consequences of being out of the loop for a few hours at a time. It may turn out to be minor, but I could imagine for some people it might be more dramatic. I will follow up with my results.

Further Thoughts On E-Mail

March 22, 2007

Yesterday I wrote about the trouble with e-mail and how in the workplace it has become a substitute for more personal forms of communication. I’ve been thinking about this issue and how there are times when e-mail does function well as a proxy for face-to-face discussion. I think these instances are uncommon, particularly in the business world, but they are possible.

Quite a few years ago, I met Amy at a photography class at UVic. We both took an interest in each other’s work–I was really drawn to her free-form style, a direct contrast to my sharply defined efforts–and we became instant friends. At the time, both Amy and I were provincial government employees, which meant we sat in front of monitors all day. As a result, e-mail became our primary mode of communication. Over many, many months we sent long, elaborate e-mails to each other, discussing pretty much everything, often baiting each other with provocative topics as we got more comfortable and daring. It was fantastic! I’ve said to Amy, years later, our friendship very much established, that if it wasn’t for e-mail we may not have become such good friends.

E-mail served us so well because we both enjoyed delving deeply into topics and picking apart at nuance. This isn’t new territory for the written word, of course, as any number of journals and long-form reporting demonstrate, but it is uncommon for e-mail. (Personally, e-mail as experienced with Amy very closely resembles my communication style during face-to-face conversation with certain people.) This sort of e-mail experience requires a certain amount of trust, respect and time, and a person willing and able to maintain the momentum. And in most business applications, I’d question whether any of these criteria apply. Not everyone enjoys a good debate or discussion, electronically or otherwise, and that’s fine. And in day-to-day work there’s really little place for missives longer than a few sentences; I’m sure no one would appreciate an e-mail treatise on corporate values by their manager! But in certain situations, e-mail doesn’t have to be the slave to management directives or badly designed invites to staff retirement parties. It can achieve a lot more.

Digital Communications Claims Another Victim

March 21, 2007

Mark Evans–former National Post reporter, current VP at b5media–provides a perfect way for me to launch my blog: he is getting off the e-mail/IM bandwagon. In becoming a “digital communications junkie,” he’s realized the time has come to drop the keyboard and pick up the phone. Relying too heavily, or exclusively, on e-mail is one of the things you hear about at communications conferences and workshops. Picking up the phone is usually considered the antidote to this problem. As Mark says:

Rather than interrupt someone by calling them, we take the easy way out by sending an e-mail or IM. Unless the message involves a simple statement (“I’m leaving work now”) or requires a simple answer (“I’ll be there in seven minutes”), you should talk to someone. Far too often, conversations that require intonation, nuance, diplomacy and subtlety are frustratingly ineffective. Yet we insist on having these digital conversations even though we know many of them are not terribly good or productive.

There’s definitely a lot to be said about calling someone, or, better yet, talking to them face-to-face. We’ve all cheated and fired off an e-mail when a call would have been the better option. Worse still: the e-mails you send to the recipient sitting in the very next cubicle!

The bigger problem, though, may be how the modern office is designed. In the typical cube farm workers sit in their pens and with the little amount of real privacy offered by their fabric walls retreat within the gentle glow of their monitors. Electronic communications easily replace the traditional interpersonal channels. We’ve all been there.