Sunday, February 7, 2016

Everyone Hates Email

Image by brunogirin, CC.
Email is a perpetual pain in the workplace. It hurts productivity. It creates stress. And it makes people pretty unhappy. Too many workers feel like they are slaves to email.

I was a guest speaker at a corporate retreat last week, where I spoke about email overload and how to prevent it. Before I put the finishing touches on my talk, I interviewed a couple of people who work for the company. They are prestigious music agents who represent some pretty big name performers. 

Some of these agents get 2,000 emails a day. Two of them told me they feel like they're in a good place when their inbox has only 200 to 300 unread messages.

That is an overwhelming amount of email!

So what are some of the problem that create so much email? A huge part of the job for these music agents is communication, so it makes sense that they might have more email than the average knowledge worker.

As with most instances of email overload, part of the problem is that a whole lot of their "email" is probably not really meant to be email.

What I mean by that is we use email for a variety of purposes, and while those purposes might boil down to "communication" in one way or another, they are often something more specific. For example, when someone asks you to do something via email, that's a task assignment. Email is not very good at handling task assignments. The manager of the task can't tell when you've read the task, if you've accepted, whether you are able to make the due date, and what else is on your plate that might take priority.

Another way we often use email that isn't very email-friendly is to distribute information that's optional. Let's say a team leader sends a message to her whole team informing them that there will be a happy hour three days from now. The message arrives with the same sense of urgency as every other email, even though it's not urgent at all. In fact, it probably doesn't make much of a difference if recipients read that email today or tomorrow, or never. A message of that nature would be better left pinned to a cork board in the office kitchen… or on a company intranet, or in an opt-in communication tool such as Slack.

Speaking at this company event was a wonderful opportunity for me to take a step back and remember the common problems that most knowledge workers combat with email. When I first started learning about the jobs that these music agents do, I was worried that they would have very specific problems that were unique to their line of work. But the more I talked to them, the more I realized they are running up against the same walls as most other knowledge workers.

If you'd like to read more about email problems and solutions, I've been writing about that very topic for the last few weeks on my other blog ProductivityReport.org.