No email just for the sake of #NoEmail?
When you follow my blogposts, you know that I really don’t like email. Wait a minute, is that true? Do I dislike email? No, not at all. I only feel that the daily and widespread email abuse is not only unproductive, but also pointless.
I wrote about how I use my Outlook to tame my inbox and I wrote about why I think that an aware and mindful handling of our working time and our attention is crucial to us: We all seem to be torn between FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and the resulting information overload.
Why do we struggle with Email?
We mis-use email as a tool for document management, task management, project management, as a substitute for chat, as a reminder, as a notebook. No wonder that we are in danger of drowning in the flood and that a healthy use seems almost impossible. Many users have simply given up and the number of unread items is no longer helpful information.
Sometimes I hear or read conversations in which people who have also made themselves aware of how harmful our unproductive our use of email is, and they come to the following conclusion: “Our email habits are evil! So, let’s just stop writing emails.”
For company internal use cases, you may probably shift to Microsoft Teams and Yammer or other tools from other vendors. For more information on this, please read my blogpost if Microsoft Teams will replace Email (Spoiler Alert: It won’t).
And for those internal communication, its mostly a very good idea not to use Email, because we already have better tools for document management, task- and project management, chat and taking notes. We have a secure workplace solution where we can access the files, we need to access without having to send copies of copies of copies.
For company external communication, we tend to use email, because we don’t have this secure workplace solution with every customer or lead or supplier. Sure, sometimes we work so closely with externals, that we have that need to invite them to our platform, but most of the time the effort would not justify this procedure and email is simply ubiquitous. Everyone owns an email address and gets instant notifications by default on all their devices.
To me personally, this is a nightmare, but we have to deal with it! Some people feel helpless and are not willing / no longer able to deal with this email madness that has completely gone off the rails: A seemingly endless stream of notifications forces us to be constantly interrupted, we cannot work, eat, talk or even go to the restroom without looking at our mobile phones.
Escape from Email?
So, some are trying to escape that email nightmare by driving a #NoEmail strategy. So, they don’t try to control the inbox, they want to avoid email at all.
For the internal use it works quite marvelously to rely on other tools, mostly these are Teams, Yammer, Skype (in the Microsoft universe… other tools from other vendors). Everyone notices how beneficial it is to use real collaboration tools, because. Let’s face it: Email is NOT a tool for teamwork: It’s not social, knowledge dies in personal mailboxes, and it’s very hard to read content in the right context. Email is simply the lowest common ground. It’s the tool we must use when we don’t have a shared platform where we can work together.
For private use, we are all familiar with using several text messaging services like WhatsApp, iMessage etc. Some of us share photos or documents with family / friends on iCloud/ google drive etc. or plan events with Trello.
External business usage
And now it’s getting freaky for me: Those #NoEmail / #ZeroEmail advocates try to avoid email just for the sake of #NoEmail. They pride themselves on planning a project with twitter or LinkedIn direct messages. And this really irritates me: By default, you get an instant email notification about those direct messages, and if you turn them off, you just have another channel you constantly must check — this is as bad as email — but without the advantages of email; e.g. being super searchable. But Congratulations: Sharing information on social media direct messages is what we call Shadow IT — and we must fight that for several reasons!
How can we establish healthy Email habits?
If we really want less or a healthy amount and a healthy behavior with emails, we need to understand that this full inbox is just a symptom, but not the real trigger. we must tackle the problem at the root, so we’d rather fight the source of the inflammation than the resulting fever.
But what is the cause for so many emails? Unfortunately, there is not only one single cause, but several, which are mutually interdependent and mutually conducive.
abuse as document management system — lack of an easily accessible place to store and edit files
Just to be clear — this is mostly not users’ fault or responsibility. Employees should store their files on shared drives — usually each department has its own drives and employees from other departments do not have access to them. This is because companies have long been structured as silos and are only gradually realizing that cross-functional teams are much more capable of working. These information silos were also replicated in the structure of permissions on folders and documents, which now has the disadvantage that people who want to work together have to find awkward workarounds. Sure, there is a probably a process to manage access of employees from other departments to a certain folder, but it takes time, the process is cumbersome, and it is much faster to simply send a copy of the document by email, which causes a few new problems:
We create version chaos (is THAT really the final version? Let’s send an email to colleague just to be sure….)
we have to deal with the fact that we hoard a lot of outdated documents, which exacerbates the additional problem of the information iceberg. Is this a bad thing? Absolutely, because if we mostly see stuff unrelated to our work, irrelevant at this moment or just don’t know how to deal with it, we train our minds to oversee information, while we need to have a deep look into relevant data.
waste of time
It is time consuming to reassemble these versions repeatedly and keep track of changes.
You see — in every small problem is a bunch of bigger ones that absolutely wants to get out 🙂
abuse as task management system
Email is often abused for “Hey Christina can you please the announcement on our website? Kind regards Tom”
What’s wrong with it? Email isn’t meant to be a task management tool and you can see this when you think of tasks:
tasks need a due date
sure, Tom could write “till Friday”, but neither he nor Christina see this deadline in a filterable list.
tasks need ownership
Tom has no overview which tasks should be completed by whom. There is no way to create a view in Outlook.
tasks need to be tracked
Did Christina realize that she needs to act? How does Tom recognize how she progresses on the task and when it is/was finished? Sure, he can ask… causing MORE emails.
But what should you use? Depending on your corporate culture, you have a few options in the Office 365 Universe (where my consultancy takes place):
- Outlook tasks: Assign them to another person, let him/her decide whether to accept or refuse that task and be able to not only track all tasks you assigned to others but also to get nice overview. This mostly gits with companies with top-down approach
- Planner: You can assign tasks to others and to yourself if you like to and everything is stored in a nice looking Kanban board ensuring openness and tranparency. Works best with teams who appreciate that everyone can see all the tasks.
- To-Do: Your personal taskmanager. I wrote a blogpost why I really fell in love with it
abuse as a tool to chat / realtime conversation
Email was designed to be asynchronous communication, so please just stop sending an email when you need to have a real time conversation. When we try to chat in email, we continuedly get interrupted by notifications because in the meantime while waiting on the reply, we try to be “productive” and do something else. Its also a sign of not committing yourself to a single conversation.
if we just stopped using emails for sending files, assigning tasks and chat. What would happen? We would dramatically reduce the amount of emails we receive each day. From my experience over the last few years with my customers, only 10–20% of the amount of emails remains. Is there any reason now to replace the remaining 10 -20% of the emails with another tool (like LinkedIn direct message), which we handle in the same way just to be able to attach a #ZeroEmail tag to us? Of course, not.
In my consultancy, I wouldn’t stop at that point of the journey to establish healthy habits. From my point of view, it’s important to analyze which kind of emails you get and then try to cluster them. After analyzing and clustering we need to figure out, if the processes which cause these email could be improved or if there are better tools to achieve your goals. For example, is there a better way than manually asking customers/ colleagues about their feedback or can we just automate this? By this approach we not only reduce the number of emails, but also improve our service: We stop being busy with being busy and start focusing on meaningful, value-adding work.
And what if this isn’t just technical circumstances or personal habits?
Now that we have clarified the technical circumstances and personal habits, I would like to change the flight altitude:
Regardless of which tools are available and how consciously employees use them, a high volume of emails is also a symptom of a global problem in the company.
Email flood almost always means: On the one hand there is a lot of need for formal coordination and on the other hand a save my ass attitude (“I gave it to you in writing, I saved the email and will rummage it out again if I have to prove something.”
Why? Perhaps there are too many opposing projects and approaches, or because there is no clear direction but conflicting goals and no effective communication of strategy from the executive level. This is a structural problem which is very closely linked to the cultural identity of the company.
To improve that, a social network like yammer is really beneficial. Here are some suggestions of questions to ask:
- Are both employees and executives clear on the role of collaboration to achieve the organizations strategic goals?
- How do executives see the changing role of leadership in network organisations?
- Do they see the value of participating personally, not through communications managers, assistants or other teams?
We need more than just other tools. A clearly communicated corporate strategy, a trustful relationship and conscious interaction with our fellow human beings ensure that we can develop a healthy attitude that enables us to work in a meaningful and value-creating way.