E-Mail: A help or hindrance?

Saturday, September 17th, 2005
Kelly Forrister, of The David Allen Company, asks the question:
"What would your job be like without email? Would you get more done or less done?"
Without email, it would be very difficult for me to do the things I do. Thanks to email (and I'm lumping IM in here, too), I'm able to serve a global client base from anywhere. While I would certainly be more focused without the disruption of email and other electronic messaging tools the nature of my work would be changed; I would be limited to serving only those people I could meet with, and the time it would take to get things done would increase significantly if I had to work without email.

Still, there's no question that we're inundated with electronic communication; the media and blogs have discussed this topic before. Two years ago, I wrote about the impact of spam on my own mailbox. Some have even argued that email is bad for your brain. It's tempting to shut off email; Like Kelly, I've read about a few organizations that eliminate e-mail for internal communications, forcing their employees to engage face-to-face. This is tempting, and I'm sure that there might even be an initial productivity boost within the organization. But I question whether it is really practical in this day and age of virtual teams.

Would we lose the productive edge if we were to eliminate electronic communications? I think so. If not the productive edge, certainly the competitive edge. Do I think we could we use e-mail in a more productive way? Absolutely.

For many people, email is not as big a disruption as compulsively checking to see if anything new has arrived. I believe that it's the behavior, not the technology of email that's so disruptive.

I believe that we must develop new ways - indeed, new behaviors - to help us use the productive benefits that technology offers, without allowing that same technology to interfere with our productivity or the productivity of these we work with.

Once in a while, I'll unhook from the internet for 24 hours so that I can get some "real work" done. It's great, but it can be limiting if I need some information from someone and I cannot easily communicate with them. Further, when people cannot reach me, it can have an adverse effect on their productivity as well. The same interference blocking that lets me get work done, inhibits my ability to get work done. Over the years, I've tried many tools and tricks. One of my first commercial software products, MailScout, was designed to curb the "flood" of email - at a time when 25 emails a day was considered excessive and a real productivity drain. In the end, these were great products, and they helped solve a problem, but not the problem. In fact, by making information more readily available any place and at any time, they probably added to the problem.

What we need, is a solution to maintain interference blocking without losing the ability to communicate as well. I believe that the ultimate solution will end up being as much technological as it will be behavioral.

What do you think?

Discussion/Comments (3):

E-Mail: A help or hindrance?

I think that the fact that this discussion so often phrases the question as being between getting more done and getting less done points to email as being a tool. Like other tools, it can be used properly or improperly.

Unfortunately, this particular tool and most cutting edge tools in general don't come with procedural instruction manuals. Office workers are given an email client and no guidance and have no real experience to know how to use it.

I think reactions like shutting down email entirely for a company are reflections of that. Because they're overwhelmed by email, and don't know how to manage it, the only management method left for them is to shut the confusion down.

At first, abuse of new technologies is blamed on the technology itself. In many cases, the number of people who compulsively check their email are the same people who used to spend inordinate amounts of time at the water cooler or on the phone.

I think that behavioral solutions are the eventual way that email use will stabilize. However, the changes in behavior need support from technology. For instance, many people check their email too often because they get notification from the taskbar every 5 minutes. If changing that to every 30 will enable the behavioral change, an email client that doesn't make that easy is going to reinforce the bad behavior.

The tools are getting to a point where the necessary flexibility is there. As the principles that lead to managing the flow are better defined, then those things can be taught, recommended, etc. They can be part of how people learn to use email.

In the current environment, neither the people who set policy nor the people under the policy really know how to effectively use it or exactly what constitutes abuse. As a result, they can't really manage their policy.

Posted at 9/18/2005 5:50:43 PM by J Wynia

E-Mail: A help or hindrance?

It also depends on your job. If you're a help desk person and you get your notifications through email, well, let's just say setting that 30 minute notification could land you in the hot seat.

I rely on my email to serve my users. I get a combination of phone or emails depending on the problem. Checking what that message was that just came through immediately lets me help my user right away.

Of course, I don't get 50+ emails a day either! ;) Heck, I'm lucky if I get 10! (and this is a good thing!)

I do find that I'll pay less attention if I'm working on a deadline or desperately trying to figure something out. Boredom or overwhelming frustration will send me to the inbox in a heartbeat!

Posted at 9/19/2005 11:48:43 AM by Debbie

I average 2000 emails per day...

Heh. I didn't say it, but I average 2000 emails per day or so, with 900 of it being spam and quite a few mailing lists. They come in from 23 seperate accounts. As such, if I left notification on a short interval, I'd never do anything else. I recently actually had to purge 97,000 emails from my spam catcher. With that kind of volume, you either figure out how to deal with it or let it take over and give up.

The only things that I do that need a response sooner than about 4 hours are actually set up to notify my cellphone instead of email.

One of my big pushes is for people to start using the right communication tool for the job. Email is not synchronous. It shouldn't be used for time-sensitive communication.

Posted at 9/20/2005 7:44:45 PM by J Wynia

Discussion for this entry is now closed.