How email shapes us... and how to get back into shape

In pre-email days, the inbox was physically separate from the file cabinet. ‘Read’ items were carefully filed away or trashed. The inbox was only meant for fresh arrivals. One didn’t attend to the inbox constantly. Just once a day, maybe twice. People didn’t expect a two hour turnaround for written correspondence. They just used the telephone for urgent matters. Corporate announcements, bulletins, circulars were often stuck on notice boards. Every employee didn’t have a copy of the notice thrust on his face in the middle of the working day.  Communication, although a part of work, was still considered distinct from actual work.

Email has altered the balance of communication and actual work. It was McLuhan who observed that technology shapes us even as we shape it. How has email shaped us?
The inbox is the file cabinet
Say we decide to wrest control from the ever brimming inbox. Check email only twice a day at fixed times, keep it closed otherwise, let’s say. But no, closing our email clients (whether on the laptop, tablet or mobile) also means locking our file cabinet. Thanks to multi-gigabyte inboxes and terrific search algorithms, our email clients are also our file cabinets. And we often need access to our file cabinets during the course of actual work. There we go, looking at our inboxes again. Filters, rules, labels or folders may help us avoid looking at what’s new but now we begin cutting against the grain of the technology. To those who say “don’t blame the technology for your lack of restraint”, think again - “technology isn’t value neutral”. 
Email clients need to evolve, whether browser based or otherwise. They need to provide a ‘go offline’ mode that gives us access to our file cabinets but keeps the inbox away. It should also be possible to specify our email checking times similar to how we already specify our working hours in our calendars. Those eager for a response will be able to lookup these times.

By the truckload, by the minute
Because it is so cheap, we send and get loads of it. Never mind spam, why have corporate notice boards disappeared? All sorts of corporate announcements flood our inboxes through the working day. At the very least, corporates should make it a rule to send announcements near close of business. But then there is no suitable time for a global corporation. So it should be possible to tag an email as a not-so-urgent announcement and have the email servers deliver it near close of business as per the time zone of the receiver. Configurable “delayed delivery” may work better than filters and rules.

A new addiction
Many managers and others spend a big part of their day reading and writing email. Email notifications provide endless distraction for those to choose to be notified of new email. New email provides a psychological kick to many. Some get bored when there is no new email for half an hour. They take a break if they see no new email. Less actual work, more communication, most of it not addressed directly to the reader.

Frivolous Documentation
Email has bred a culture of excessive documentation. The ability to easily get things on record has increased the tendency to do so. This is another reason why people don’t use the telephone for not so important but urgent matters. They write an email to put in on record and wait for a quick reply, even if the recipient is only meters away. This needs to be discouraged. Get them to use the phone. Cost need not be a hindrance. A global corporation requires people to collaborate long distance in near real time. Long distance telephony isn’t cheap but VOIP is.

Vocal conversations can be overheard or may disturb others, especially so in open plan layouts. Email affords privacy and doesn’t disturb. Fair enough.

Of luddites and of having access to the latest information
Am I a luddite for refusing access to real time updates, for wanting to go offline? Communications technology is evolving rapidly. Embracing all of it as good has unexpected and undesirable side effects. On the other hand, is it just filter failure?. After all, would we want to miss a relevant email in the midst of our work and then rework? To me, this sounds like an insurance salesman. If we expect new email to have an immediate impact on our work, wouldn’t we just choose to stay online for that piece of work? How often does unexpected new email from the past couple of hours have an impact on our work? Can some of these just-in-time scenarios be avoided by encouraging a change of behaviour at the other end?

As a reader of email,
1.        Let your colleagues, manager know that you only check email twice a day. Publish your timings.
2.        Disable email notifications.
3.        Ask your email vendor to support an offline mode that screens new email from you (but lets you access old email) when you are working.

As a writer of email,
1.         Don’t expect a two hour turnaround. Call if you need a quick response.
2.        Include just as many people as necessary in your email. Don’t cc the whole department/team.
3.        Don’t send meeting invites without sufficient notice (4 hours at least?)

As a leader,
1.         Encourage styles of working that don’t require people to check email constantly
2.        Encourage people to use VOIP and call their colleagues for things that need a quick response rather than write email.
3.        Regulate the volume and timing of corporate announcements into people’s inboxes.

As a vendor of email software,
1.         Allow people to specify their email checking hours that others can look up.
2.        Provide a ‘go offline’ button that screens new email from the user until she is ready for it.
3.        Provide options for delayed, time zone sensitive delivery that lets corporates send announcements etc. without interrupting the working day
4.       Make notifications opt-in rather than opt-out

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