Saturday, March 26, 2016

Email's Unique Problems

Email causes unique problems in the workplace that we don't see in other forms of communication. It's not the technology necessarily that creates them, but rather the company culture that's formed around email.

When we look at alternative office-place communication channels, such as Slack, HipChat, work-management platforms, project management platforms, and so forth, we often find that they are still interruptive and distracting. Slack is no less distracting than email. But it's distracting in a slightly different way, and one that I would argue is less destructive to productivity.

The Simple Part of the Email Problem: Interruptions and Task-Switching
We know that email is interruptive because of its notifications and that we lose time task-switching between our primary task and email. Notifications also break our attention from the task at hand and divert our focus to see what's happening now. So it's not just time lost spent task-switching, but also time spent reorienting ourselves and getting back into the flow of our work. When we break our focus to check email, we end up with fewer periods of uninterrupted focus. Those periods of uninterrupted focus are necessary for getting our hardest (and usually most important) work done. That hard work is usually the work companies are most interested in seeing us do from an ROI perspective.

But that's not the full story.

The problem with email specifically doesn't end with the interruption, the glance at the notification, the skim of the subject line, just to be sure the message isn't urgent. The problem goes to the heart of why we must check.

The Harder Part of the Email Problem: Are You a 'Team Player?'
Many organizations have a company culture around email that says, "If I don't reply to this email right away, I am not a team player. I am not paying attention to my job. I am failing to be responsive." But there isn't much basis behind that sentiment.

Email messages that feel urgent aren't always urgent in reality. Even emails that contain tasks that the receiver believes should be done today or now don't need to be today or now or sometimes at all. One piece of research suggests that a good percentage of office emails that contain tasks simply expire after a time. If the task doesn't get done by the time the expiration date rolls around, it either didn't need to get done so urgently after all, or the sender found another way to complete the task by him/herself. A clear example is information gathering. Email a colleague to ask a question. If the colleague doesn't reply, the sender might look up the information or ask someone else. The receiver of that email would have believed it to be an important and urgent email, especially if it comes from a superior, when in fact it was not urgent at all. Sometimes we even experience this phenomenon the day after a long flight or being out sick. We scan our inbox and find messages that are essentially dead in the sense that they no longer have any relevance.

It's not entirely clear why this problem occurs in email but not in other forms of communication technologies, but it probably has to do with email's history of development and the company culture around email.

For More...
I've been exploring a lot of productivity problems caused by or related to email over at You can read some of my more in-depth exploration of the research on the trouble with email there.