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Escape from Email

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

I'm falling out of love with email as an internal communication tool for business. Things used to be great, certainly an upgrade over the carbon paper 'speed memos' I used when I first started in banking. In fairness, there was a certain level of flair involved with waiting for the mail clerk to wheel the squeaky mailcart by your desk to drop off the day's memos. I assume this was how Andy Dufresne felt waiting for the next book to be dropped off in his jail cell in Shawshank Redemption. However, that's also how he got the rock hammer he used to escape… maybe not the best example (or is it)?

Email is just too much and I when I say too much, I mean TOO MUCH. When we receive hundreds of emails per day, it's time to admit we have a problem. Moreover the problem we have created is significant. Mckinsey found that workers can spend 28% of their time managing emails. While other studies have suggested that only a fraction of work emails are deemed to be critically important.

We are spending over a quarter of our work week managing email and most of what we're managing isn't important.

This negative impact on productivity must be taken seriously. Investing 2-3 hours a day dealing with email means we're spending a significant portion of our careers in reactive mode. We're allowing the day to manage us instead of us managing our day. What's even more concerning is the compounding effect this has when you consider the time it takes to get back on task. According to Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.

Failing to address the problems with social technology could be costing us over $900 billion in annual value across commercial sectors in the United States. Consider that in terms of your company or line of business. How would your view of email change if you were charged 25 cents each time you opened an email? I'm guessing you would find ways to reduce the number of emails you receive.

Let's hold that aside for a moment because the issue with email goes well beyond productivity. Business is and always will be about people and there are cultural implications to anything that impacts communication. Therefore when judging the effectiveness of email it's only fair to do so within the scope of how it performs as a communication tool for our colleagues. The jury has deliberated and found email guilty, much like Mr. Dufresne, of being particularly icy and remorseless. (Note: Shawshank may or may not have been on my television as I was writing this post).

Email is icy! It gives the recipient no indication of the senders mood or motive. It has no way of offering any insight into how the recipient will feel about (interpret) the message. It's no wonder seemingly benign emails are met with fiery responses and hurt feelings.

Email is also remorseless; a tool serving the needs of sender while leaving the recipient on the hook for the review, analysis, and ultimate determination of what (if anything) needs to be accomplished. We've all received the forward with the "FYI" or "see below". As we wade through the seemingly endless headers and repeated subject lines, we do our best to become junior detectives and we work to solve the mystery. While we're doing that, we might receive a couple more responses to the thread that we'll have to consider before drafting our response. Good times!

In summary, email robs you of productivity (increase expenses), takes control over a large portion of your day (increases stress), and has a negative impact on your professional relationships (damages culture). Now here's the twist -there is no problem with email! The problem is with us and we use email. We're asking email to do things that go beyond its capabilities. It would be no more fair to ask a letter to act as a to-do list and a filing cabinet than it is to ask email to be a phone and an indexed search engine for everything that's happened in the company over the past 7 years. We're using email incorrectly and we can do better. It deserves better.

Here are five tips to break free of the email prison we've created.


1. Create Social Media "No Fly Zone" Hours

Establish a set block of hours each day where your team turns off chat and email services. This time is dedicated 100% to forward looking tasks. (e.g. Sales people get to selling.)


2. Use the phone!

You're great, people like you, they enjoy hearing from you. It feels good to connect with people. It's okay to call people and build relationships.


3. Instant Messaging

Now we need to exercise caution because we don't want to replace the volume of emails with non-stop chat notifications. However, for a quick question when phone isn't an option we can use instant messaging.


4. Use File Sharing Solutions

With the increasing popularity of cloud bases options we don't need to use email for sending attachments. Considering using other tools such as SharePoint or Microsoft Teams for file sharing and collaboration.


5. Enterprise Social Networks

While not new, they are not typically well utilized. There is an opportunity to push some of the company wide communication over to these networks.


The rock hammers we need to escape email prison are available to us today. All that remains is to commit to chipping away at the problem.

As I envision a future free of our self-made email prison, I'm reminded of what Red said at the end of the hit movie The Shawshank Redemption, "I find I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain."

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