Is Email Undermining Productivity?
By Karin Eldor
When it comes to email, things have certainly changed. During the AOL “You’ve Got Mail!” era of the late ’90s (for those of us old enough to remember it!), receiving email was a thrill and a novelty.
Today, the general consensus seems to be that workplace emails and cluttered inboxes are productivity killers. Ironic, how a tool that’s supposed to improve communication among colleagues, and connect vendors with suppliers, has somehow managed to become counterproductive!
Is it because people don't practice email etiquette and send long-winded and unimportant / trivial messages? Perhaps. Or is it because email has become overused and abused, much in the same way that meetings have become too frequent and too long? Likely.
Recently, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the concept of cutting out emails altogether. Some of today’s most successful CEOs and business people are revolting against email, claiming to only check their emails once per day. Unheard of? Yes.
But they might actually be on to something. Find out why.
The problem(s) with email
Email is a distraction
Email is the perfect activity when you’re looking to procrastinate, kind of like checking your social media feed every 30 minutes – anything to actually pump out some real work. A New York Times article by Tony Schwartz called “Addicted to Distraction” was published in November 2015, and sheds light on how distracting emails can be.
According to Schwartz, the average white-collar worker spends six hours per day checking email. This is staggering! That means 30 hours per week just checking email. This means less time to actually get work done, making our days longer.
No wonder people are claiming to feel overwhelmed and tired!
The phenomenon – or more like epidemic – spawned Schwartz to launch the Energy Project.
Schwartz is a credible source. As the bestselling author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, he has trained and coached CEOs and senior leaders at companies like Apple and Google.
The Energy Project partners with organizations to create workplaces that are healthier, happier and more focused, to create a more sustainable way of working.
In today’s business reality of increasing demand and diminishing resource, people are more apt to working more hours and are constantly tied to email. The truth is: we’re not built to work like machines! This model of doing more with less will eventually lead your team members to either burn out, or leave the company.
Recognizing these issues, the Energy Project offers consulting and training services to companies, to help them build policies and communication tools that support a better way of working.
Of course the Energy Project is addressing a broader issue here. But the concept of being tied to email is a symptom of this issue. We have become trained to reply to emails the moment we hear that “ping” or buzz, and in turn, to expect a response immediately. The habit of checking email only twice per day – so let’s say in the morning and the afternoon -- is actually more productive and is more likely to help you clear your inbox more efficiently.
Email is an addiction
It has become impossible to disconnect. “Out of office” notifications are often ignored as some people still expect a reply! The funny thing is, most of us have likely become so attached to our workplace email, that the thought of not checking emails every hour – even at night and on weekends – is actually anxiety inducing.
“Alerts anxiety” – the need to recheck emails every few minutes – is real and for many of us, it has spiraled out of control.
At the risk of dating myself, I remember an era when vacation or the weekend meant no access to email, because your email client was only accessible at work and not remotely. Can you imagine that? But we survived, still got work done, and likely felt more refreshed once Monday rolled around again.
Alternatives to email
So where does email stand today? Is it still a viable communication tool in the workplace?
Yes, it still has its purpose, but there are some great alternatives to regular email that might soon make email obsolete.
Tools like Google Chat (if you’re on Gmail) are a great way to ask someone an urgent or quick question, when you need something ASAP.
The trick is resisting the urge to look at your inbox every 5 minutes while you’re signed in to the instant messaging functionality.
Collaborative messaging tools: Slack & Asana
There’s a reason why the startup Slack was named Inc.’s “Company of the Year” in 2015. Slack is a virtual communication tool, aimed at allowing your team members to communicate in real time.
Contributing Editor of Inc.com, John Brandon, predicts that Slack will kill email “once and for all”. Why? Because Slack (and similar messaging apps like Yammer) is a reflection of how workplace collaboration works today. It makes “synchronous collaboration” possible, whereas email is too slow and inefficient. Slack and similar tools help interweave communication naturally into team members’ workflow.
Slack allows team members to chat with each other about projects, timelines – anything, really. All conversations are searchable, and it even allows you to share supporting documents and attachments. It’s a more fluid and engaging way to communicate, as employees can chat about their projects and share documents in the open instead of emailing back and forth.
You create channels per project or department, for example, and all relevant team members are added.
And no worries: you can still “direct message” team member(s) if there’s something private you need to share or discuss.
While Slack is being hailed as the leader for “virtual team communications,” Asana is a more robust project management tool, which features some of the same virtual communication functionality as Slack.
Asana helps those working on a project keep track of everyone’s status and offer feedback right in the tool, and also features the benefits of a “smarter Inbox.”
With Asana you only get the team updates you need, instead of a barrage of unnecessary messages that will only serve to distract you and force you to hit “delete” – while wasting your time in the process.
(Slack can be integrated into Asana too, and many companies use both. You would need to create a comparative “scorecard” to see which tool is best for your workplace).
All of these tools are a reflection of where the workplace is headed today: a collaborative team effort, where working remotely is also a reality for many.
The Future of Email
So should we “delete” the concept of email for good?
Whether your workplace is currently using Gmail or Outlook, email is still a key tool for communication.
But with virtual and fluid tools like Slack, and us changing our relationship with email and being more disciplined about checking our inboxes, we will all feel freer to focus on being more productive, more creative and less apt to hit “reply all” or “send.”
This CEO's Success Hack? Don't Check Email – Refinery29