I’m a writer, and back in the day I used to curse the phone for daring to interrupt my flow with its shrill cry. I cheered when email arrived. It was quicker than lightning. Easy to use. Saved paper and stamps. And it didn’t ring!
But my one-time savior has turned on me. By day’s end my hand is a cramped claw, contorted from hitting the “send” button repeatedly and cranking out one – or 50 — too many emails. People keep claiming that email will die, that some new technology will replace it. But it lives on. And on. And on. Sure, email can be a great thing. But it can steal our lives if we let it. From killing our personal time to screwing up our work patterns, here are some of the ways email can really mess us up.
Work is dominating our lives even when we’re not actually in the office. Job insecurity and the fear of not being perceived as performing chains us to our inbox, even if we work remotely.
Many of us live in a work culture where we feel we have to respond to emails at all hours. No matter that we might be involved in offline work or activities that should command our full attention. Or — perish the thought — engaging in personal time. Email follows us into the car, to the dinner table and even to the loo. (No kidding. See: “Checking Email in the Bathroom? You’re Far From Alone.”)
I’ve been on dates where no matter how special the occasion, my date has pulled out his iPhone and checked his email. I have a “three strikes you’re out rule” on that one. First, I ask you to stop. Second time, I give you a warning. Third time, I’m gone. If somebody is driving me, they get one warning. And yet I am perceived as strangely intolerant of what many consider normal behavior.
When we scratch out a few vacation days, instead of the declarative “I am on vacation and will respond to your email when I return,” we post the timid “I will only check email infrequently” or the semi-plausible “I will have limited access to email.”
Even if you’re in the hinterland, there may be plenty of “access” to email. Does that mean you should use it when you are supposed to be recharging? It does not. Part of the problem is that we fear the return to work and the pile of unanswered email will be so gruesome that we cave in and check once – twice — and pretty soon we’re checking email during the sunset dinner cruise. The vicious cycle consumes us. We can’t switch off, and it’s turning us into stress freaks.
2. Screws Up Productivity
In her article “Busyness vs. Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive,” Anna Zelenka described two different styles of work. One privileges things like face time, strategic long-term planning, return on investment and hierarchical control. That’s the “busyness” style. The other, the “burst” style, favors innovation, flat knowledge networks and discontinuous productivity.
We need both styles: the busyness types keep the trains running on time; the burst types provide the creative spark. Guess which type lives inside their email? The busyness types. That’s where they store documents and conduct most of their work. And they tend to demand an immediate response to email. The burst types, on the other hand, tend to use other forms of communication, such as wikis, IM, chat rooms, SMS and RSS. They work intensely for a period, then need downtime to recover and refresh – time in which they are not checking email. That doesn’t sit well with the busyness types, writes Zelenka:
Bursters … look irresponsible to the busy who jump on each email as soon as it arrives. Bursters know you should try instant messaging if you need a quick answer, go with a blog post if you’re announcing something, and use a wiki for archiving information useful to the entire team. Bursters know that you can use RSS readers with RSS alerts to track all sorts of useful events from system management to code check-ins to development schedule updates to mailing list messages — your email doesn’t have to serve that role. Bursters know that the less they respond by email, the more their colleagues will seek them out using other channels.
But the dominant American managerial style is the busyness model, and it can hamper the productivity of bursters.
The problem has become so acute that some companies are hiring consultants to help them make email more efficient and effective and are even declaring email-free days. Some have found that these email holidays actually increase productivity and encourage better forms of communication among workers and clients. A California software company launched “email-free Fridays” and found that employees spent more time talking on the phone to clients. Encouraged by the friendlier attention, clients were more likely to visit the office and get to know the sales reps, who now actually had time to visit – because they weren’t constantly checking email.
3. Collaboration Nightmare
Email can be just the ticket for one-to-one communication and even one-to-many communication. But if you’ve ever been involved in a project in which multiple contributors are firing back and forth, you know what happens. Conversation flow becomes unclear. The wrong people get left out or included. People get frazzled. They lose energy. They may even pack their toys and go home.
When I launched a Web site, things moved very quickly, and my two partners and I found ourselves frantically communicating via email to keep up. One day I noticed that a new email came in just about every minute. If I answered every one of them, I would do little else all day. Stuff got lost. Tempers flared.
Then we discovered the wiki. A wiki is a Web site where pages can be edited by multiple people using a web browser. It’s a shared site that even someone with laughable technical skills such as myself can make and update. If you can learn Facebook, you can make a wiki. It gives everybody a place to go to check status updates and view information – like a collective bulletin board and file cabinet.
Once we got ourselves wiki-fied, my partners and I got more done, and we got it done without losing our minds. It was far from perfect, but it beat the hell out of email. Information on the wiki could be easily updated, and static information was easily viewable without digging frantically through old emails. The biggest hurdle to the wiki is the resistance to try new technology – and this can be powerful. A friend who runs a successful online business once joked to me, “I decide who gets to keep their job based on whether or not they will use a wiki.” He was only half-joking.
4. Fosters Ill Will
Let’s face it: Email is an unmannerly beast. We’ve all had the co-worker who sounds inordinately terse or demanding in email, and we’ve probably all done it ourselves.
I once worked with an editor – thankfully not for long – whose emails were acidic enough to peel the lashes off your eyelids. You absorbed the contents in stunned silence, knowing the written declarations of your stupidity or incompetence were recorded in cyberspace. In person, this woman came across as pleasant. But in email, she was a holy terror. Why? Something about the impersonal nature of email brought out her inner dragon. The faceless, voiceless communication makes us forget that there is an actual human being on the other end.
I wonder if email is a contributor to the growing trend of incivility in our culture. Just as the rapid trading made possible with desktop computers brought a tsunami of short-term thinking and disrespect for human values into the financial industry, email may be eroding our sensitivity to the give and take of human interaction. Many emails don’t even contain the courtesy of a greeting, a simple hello. They burst on us unawares, barking out demands or questions without so much as a please or thank you.
Often simply picking up the phone or walking into the next office can save us a world of email confusion and aggression. And yet we shy away from the more human forms of communication, hiding behind our email and throwing bombs from the safety of our cubicle — until we’ve ruined a relationship or poisoned our job.
5. The Email Devil
If you spend too much of your time emailing, eventually you will encounter a malevolent being known as the “Email Devil.” This invisible creature lurks inside your inbox causing you to Cc the wrong party, forward an embarrassing personal email to your boss and reply to your entire address list when you meant to answer one person. The Email Devil makes requests sounds like rude demands and causes jokes to come off as offensive. These screw-ups can be embarrassing, and they can also get you into legal trouble. Lawsuits have resulted from ill-considered jokes and offensive comments written in emails.
Email can seem like such a private and cozy form of communication — but it isn’t. Have you ever forwarded a ridiculous or untoward email meant for your private viewing? Then you can bet someone has done it to you. Even when you’re emailing the correct party, an unintended audience may be viewing your email. Basically, your employer can legally monitor your email as long as somewhere a written policy exists. And emails you send and receive while at work – even those you delete — are often stored on a company server for as long as 30 days.
You really should have a separate email account for personal stuff, and you should remember that work emails should be written as if they will be broadcast to the universe. Any time you need to discuss something confidential, choose the in-person or phone meeting over email.
So What Do We Do?
Breaking the email chains that bind us is a daunting challenge. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know we have to talk more openly about the problem and not let ourselves fall into a that’s-just-the-way-it-is trap. So let’s experiment. Let’s not start our day automatically with email. Let’s not be afraid to tell the sender of an email “I’ll respond to this tomorrow” if it comes after business hours. Let’s unsubscribe from newsletters we don’t read, and let’s not give our email address to the store clerk when we make a purchase. Let’s avoid sending abrupt messages without greetings or courtesies — even to co-workers we deal with frequently. When we go on vacation, let’s tell people firmly that we will not be dealing with email. And let’s mean it.