Mend it, don’t end it (email, that is)

I blissfully went through the first half of my life without electronic mail, and yet I cannot imagine living without it now. There are specific tasks for which mail (narrowly defined here as the transmission of text written by the sender, to one or more recipients) is simply irreplaceable. People have corresponded in that way for centuries, and electronic mail is in many respects nothing but the obvious evolution of “snail mail”. I hardly see any reason for going back to slow, clumsy, expensive, unreliable snail mail; I cannot think of anything that it did, that electronic mail does not do much better.

I am no expert, but I would be surprised if electronic mail could not be quantitatively shown to have vastly improved our communication with family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and in general with anyone with whom we need to exchange information or share our life experience.
Of course, it cannot replace direct, oral communication entirely. Moreover, I can certainly see how a case could be made for discouraging and/or limiting the use of electronic mail, in specific circumstances.
Me, I use electronic mail (email) a lot, including in many cases where I could easily make a phone call, or even talk face to face to the person whom I am sending the email message. What are the advantages of email over having a regular conversation ?

Making a point. I might be exceptionally bad at that, but I find it extremely difficult to stay focused on a specific topic for a long time, during a conversation with others, especially when one or more of the participants (or, all of them), are pressed for time or when I am tired. We all have the same bad habits — we raise our voices, interrupt others, interject our own thoughts even when they are not related to what is being said. Sometimes, we remember one thing that we absolutely have to say, and for fear of not being able to do so before the end of the conversation, we chime in with it at the wrong time. And, invariably, some important things remain unsaid.
Email allows one to express a thought coherently and exhaustively, while at the same time creating a permanent record of what is being said.

Precision. This is self-explanatory, almost. Written communication is less prone to errors and misunderstanding. Verbally, things are stated inaccurately, ambiguously, words are mispronounced (especially by us non-native English speakers), and misunderstandings occur. This is the main reason I believe email is essential in the workplace. The fact that things were done before without email, is no serious argument. Mankind has functioned for millennia without 90% of what is available today, but that is no reason not to embrace any technological innovation that can measurably improve quality of life, and improved communication contributes to that.

Convenience. If several people are involved in the same undertaking, email makes it possible to entertain a meaningful exchange of opinions and/or dissemination of information, without all of the parties involved convening at a given place at the same time. This day and age, setting up meetings among more than two or three people is very difficult, and even when those meetings are necessary, a lot of the leg work can be done over email, as well as summarizing the outcome afterwards.

Productivity. Let us face it, most of the collaborative work among individuals physically residing in different parts of the planet would simply not take place, were it not for email. It is by far the best way of starting a collaboration and keeping it going.

But then… why curb its use ?

It would almost seem like email is a no-brainer these days… given the measurable benefits, and the little or no inconvenience [0], why would anyone think of limiting the use of email ? Should email use not be rather encouraged, based on what stated above ? Why would many instead argue that it should be used less, not more ? Why do some businesses go as far as implementing “no email policies”, and justify them on the ground of decreased productivity attributable to the use of email ? Nope, I am not making this up.

Just fire out an email to …. everyone.

It is there, it is quick, it is easy, it is convenient… all of this easily leads to abuse, and it is not difficult to imagine how it could happen.
According to Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, there is a significant productivity loss, as employees devote an inordinate amount of time going through email messages of little or no relevance to the task that they should be carrying out. Let me quote from the article:
“[Breton] said the main problem was people switching to a ‘useless’ email while they were carrying out a far more important task. Allowing e-mails to stack up also means that staff have huge e-mail workloads to pile through when they get home [....] Reading useless messages is terrible for concentration, as it takes 64 seconds to get back on the ball after doing so. Poorly controlled, the e-mail can become a devastating tool.”.
Does this ring true ?

I thought so. Personally, at least half [1] of the email that I receive on a daily basis is deleted almost right away, as it is of no interest nor importance to me, and is very distracting and annoying. I agree with the notion that, even though the act of disposing of it may take no more than a second, the cumulative effect of a lot of irrelevant messages received over a work day can be pretty substantial.

But, doing away with email altogether is silly. It is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The problem is not email per se, but poorly controlled email, as stated in the article. In that sense, email is no different from an annoying colleague knocking on our door every half hour to discuss something irrelevant.
But make no mistake: when I think of “irrelevant”, “useless” email, I am not referring to the oddball message sent out to everyone, by some self-righteous individual assuming that his or her own personal endeavours are surely of interest to each and everyone reachable by email. For me, that is a tiny, marginal fraction of all useless email (and a lot of the time I actually enjoy those messages — plus, individuals having the tendency of (ab)using email in this way, richly deserve a spot in our own automatic purge list anyway).
No, I am talking about messages sent out by persons who are simply doing their job, using mailing lists set up for the purpose of broadcasting information that invariably will be of any use only to a few of all recipients. That is what should be curbed, not email as a whole.

And, I think that there are a number of simple measures that any workplace could adopt, in order to make the problem much less severe. The simplest thing to do is set up an internal web site (bulletin board), in which all general purpose announcements are posted. It is the responsibility of each and every employee to read it, thereby remaining reasonably current with what is happening. Although even in that case a genuine effort should be made to post only material that is truly of common interest, possibly filed with informative keywords in order to make it easy to skip reading stuff of no direct relevance, I think that that would already reduce drastically the number of useless emails.

Notes

[0] Junk mail is not one. We would get junk mail in the regular mail anyway, and email has lesser of an impact on the environment. Moreover, there are ways to filter out most junk email, whereas junk mail will always clutter our mailbox, and disposing of it will be more time-consuming and annoying than email.
Also, I do not entirely buy the argument that “over email things are said that can upset the other person, which would not be said face to face”. Make no mistake, I think that that does happen, but it can also happen the other way around. I have seen bitter arguments erupt, in meetings where everyone was present, and I had the distinct impression that if the same things had been said over email the reactions would have been more toned down. So, I am not sure if email by itself is more likely to lead to misunderstandings, due to someone using some unfortunate expression. Often times, people will use the “heat of the moment” excuse to justify saying in person something that they would not put in writing.

[1] And that is only because I am filtering out a lot of it (i.e., it gets deleted even before making it to my in-box), with the concrete risk that some of it may actually be important. In fact, that is one facet of the problem that is not mentioned at all in the article — the fact that people tend to ignore email sent by specific sources, if it turns out to be unimportant most of the time, means that the one occasional message that really should be read by everyone, will be ignored too.

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6 Responses to “Mend it, don’t end it (email, that is)”

  1. GMP Says:

    No, I am talking about messages sent out by persons who are simply doing their job, using mailing lists set up for the purpose of distributing information that will be each time of any use only to a few of all recipients. That is what should be curbed.

    Oh yes. By all means the worse “spammers” are different services from my own university, the professional societies I belong to, and organizers of various conferences that have nothing to do with my research. If I could only get rid of all the useless crap that my university sends, I would be a happy woman.

  2. vwxynot@gmail.com Says:

    You want to get a lot of email (and phone calls)? Try signing up for political party membership in the middle of a leadership campaign…

    I agree with almost everything you said. The worst offenders IMO are people who copy EVERYONE on work-related emails that really should only go to a handful of people. This was endemic at my last job as it was seen as a way of covering yourself in a slightly paranoid and toxic environment – and I admit to taking part in this use of email at times, as its usefulness was very evident from my own experience and that of colleagues. I don’t have to do it quite so often in my current job, although there are a couple of people/projects/situations that inspire enough paranoia that I start CC spamming people!

    BTW, your non-Google+-using readers need to know about your latest washing machine-related shenanigans

    • Massimo Says:

      You want to get a lot of email (and phone calls)? Try signing up for political party membership in the middle of a leadership campaign…

      Well, I signed up last year and I am getting bombarded by Mulcair email anyway…

      • vwxynot@gmail.com Says:

        Have you decided who to vote for? I’m torn between Nash and Cullen. I may just vote for whoever sends me the fewest emails and phone calls between now and the election.

        I’ve never been a member of a political party during a leadership campaign before (I was a member of the UK Labour Party for a few years, but never got to help pick a new leader); it’s so much harder than knowing who to vote for in an actual election!

      • Massimo Says:

        If Nash just keeps quiet she has my vote. As soon as she mentions some merger with the Liberals, I am out.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

        What I need is a neutral (or at least mostly neutralish) website that lists each candidate’s policies on multiple issues side-by-side, to enable a direct comparison. I can only find bits and pieces on the web, and the NDP’s own site is useless. I’m leaning toward Cullen as a more mainstream and electable candidate, but trying to figure out how much of that is west coast bias :)

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