Rob West

Why email is killing your productivity and how to fix it

Published 4 Sep 2020

Let's get started with a bold statement: most businesses would be more productive if they did not use email for internal communication. I don't mean "used email less", I mean a total cessation. Why is email so bad? How can you work effectively without email in the "new normal" of remote working?

I'm not stating the premise so strongly just to get attention; there is plenty of data available showing how disruptive and poor email is as a form of communication. Information compiled by Atlassian suggests that the average employee receives 304 emails per week and checks their email 36 times per hour. You might argue that this just demonstrates the flow of information in a modern business, but as Aaron Dignan points out in his book Brave New Work:

With all this email changing hands, we should have all the information we need at our fingertips, right? But that's not the case, not by a long shot. And the reason isn't that we're bad at email; the reason is that email is a completely inferior way to share information within an organisation. It has three fatal flaws. First, email defaults to privacy rather than transparency. When you send email, you decide in that moment who needs to know. Forget to include people who need it, and they'll be clueless. Throw caution to the wind and blast everyone, and your wasting precious time and attention. Second, email is an information sinkhole. Sure, you might be able to find the email you need when you need it, but what about someone who never got it? What if a new employee joined your team today? Do they get the benefit of thirty thousand emails buried in your inbox? ... finally, email is context free. Every email, regardless of whom it came from or how important it is, lands in your inbox in the exact same way. You want to know what it's about? You have to read it.

It is this last point about context that has us constantly checking emails. If you don't stay on top of the incoming flood you might miss something important that requires your immediate attention. We've developed a culture where it is acceptable to send such urgent issues via email, and the medium is treated as a near synchronous form of communication. This has us constantly switching attention from the task we are trying to carry out with the well known cognitive impact in terms of time to regain focus.

Email is a "push" form of information because it is delivered without our consent. The cognitive load for sifting out the signal from the noise is placed on the receiver. Firing off an email to somebody becomes a way of shifting responsibility to them, a micro-victory in the ongoing war with your inbox. You end up conducting multiple firefights, many threads of rushed communication back and forth with no time to think effectively and no ability to concentrate on your actual job! Who the hell wants to answer the question "what do you do?" with "oh, I do email" but that is the depressing truth for many of us these days. Survey results show that we spend an average of 4 hours per day on emails.

The remorseless flood of emails has us trying to stay on top by checking emails out of business hours, which leads to anxiety as Cal Newport describes in his article on email in the Harvard Business Review:

As more knowledge workers now acknowledge, the inbox-bound lifestyle created by an unstructured workflow is exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Humans are not wired to exist in a constant state of divided attention, and we need the ability to gain distance from work to reflect and recharge. Put simply, this workflow, which can transform even the highest skilled knowledge workers into message-passing automatons, is making an entire sector of our economy miserable.

In the case against email, you also need to remember the inferiority of the written word over face to face communication, where you have non-verbal cues to help disambiguate meaning, and the ability to seek clarification. When I reflect on problems that have arisen in work they almost always revolve around a failure of communication, a lack of alignment and understanding between team members. The reliance on email as a means to communicate and run projects is a key factor in these failures.

Pull vs. Push Communication

First, you need to switch your information delivery from push to pull. Use platforms that allow information to be tagged and searched. There are a whole host of options in this space including Slack, Teams, Confluence, Basecamp and many more. The point is to create organised spaces where project and team communication can happen. When disseminating information you should have a system in place to clearly indicate the nature of the message. This allows team members to take control of their information gathering at a time that suits them, and in a way that allows them to find the information that is relevant to them.

A system like this also has the benefit of enabling organisational transparency, which is something that Aaron Dignan views as critical to business success:

Increased transparency is critical in the early stages of transforming your [business operating system], because it's a prerequisite for making sound decisions. One of the most common mistakes I see is teams taking a swing at empowerment before ensuring transparency. What happens? People make decisions without the benefit of crucial information (about intent, strategy, customers, prior learnings, etc.), those decisions are subpar, and leadership goes, "See! People can’t be trusted to make decisions." Avoid this by focusing decisions on sharing early and often. Make it safe. Make it habitual. When shared consciousness is high, everything else gets easier.

Allow people to mine company and project information in ways that are relevant for them and you will be surprised by the serendipitous discoveries that it will lead to.

Make Space for Deep Work

Even if you switch from the push of email to the pull of collaborative information and messaging platforms, you still run the risk of constant interruptions and the consequent inability to carry out what Newport calls "deep work", the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. I can't think of a better exemplar of such a cognitively demanding task than writing code.

In the knowledge economy we need to give such deep work the space it needs. Newport suggests a solution which he calls "office hours". In one of my teams we called it "surgery hours". The idea is that you replace the unstructured interruptive free for all of modern working practice with a structure in which individuals guarantee to be available for communication during fixed periods during the day. If you want something from a member of the team, the onus is on you to keep track of it and book a slot in their office hours. As Newport says:

Notice that the workflow induced by an office-hours scheme replaces on-demand messaging with structured communication. People now know exactly when someone might need their attention and exactly when they can command the attention of others. This freedom from a constant background hum of interaction will increase the intensity of concentration achievable when people need to work deeply, and the efficiency with which shallower tasks can be batched together and dispatched.

Obviously there will be emergencies, and you need to be able to contact someone outside of office hours on those occasions, but ask yourself how often you have had such a genuine emergency. In reality, most of what we deem as urgent can wait for a few hours. The benefits in terms of productivity for everyone on the team are worth it. In a genuine emergency, the best way to get hold of someone is (shock horror!) by giving them a ring!

An additional benefit of moving communication to dedicated times is that it facilitates face to face communication. Synchronous communication is hugely more effective. No back and forth emails amidst a deluge of other competing messages. It means you actually talk to your teammates via video or phone which is more important than ever in the new normal of remote first working. Information quality goes up, decisions are better, team bonds are strengthened.

You might object that this approach makes whole team communication more challenging, but this can be addressed by agreeing at least some shared office hours slots. Work flexibility is crucial in the modern workplace, but unless your team is globally distributed, such coordination should be possible.

When every member of the team cannot make a meeting then I'd suggest that the session is recorded and placed on the team's collaboration platform so all can review it at a time that is convenient to them. This is actually easier to do in a remote working environment. It is also good practice to write up the actions of any such team meeting and place them on the collaboration platform, so that pull information gathering is possible.

Why Not Try It?

The advantage of adopting this approach is that there is very little expense or effort required to trial it. You probably already have a collaboration platform in place. Spending some time to make sure that you are using it effectively, tagging content, organising channels and memberships will have benefits whether you permanently ditch internal email or not. So try it for a week or two and see what happens.


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