In reading “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle recently, the chapter about work caused me to reflect on our ongoing relationship with email. New apps, such as Slack, are touted as email killers, but why are we so addicted to email in the first place? In this post, I’ll dig into our relationship with email and what we might do to release its grip on us and our interactions at work.
Avoidance tactics – when email removes real connection
It prevents us from getting out of our control zone – We probably all know that feeling of being productive and terribly reluctant to interrupt our rhythmic rally of send an email, read an email, send an email, read an email…Yet while we’re firing words back and forth at speed we may have lost the sense of connection with the recipients, and almost certainly can’t context switch between different threads and recipients with any precision.
It helps us to avoid moments of vulnerability and accountability such as saying sorry – Missed a meeting? Late to deliver a report to a colleague? Send a quick “Sorry” and move on. Email lets us avoid the awkward eye contact. We get out of seeing the effects of our actions in the flesh. And so we also miss out on taking the sometimes messy, emotionally difficult steps to rectify our mistakes and rebuild relationships.
It prevents unexpected “time-wasting” in-person – Face-to-face conversations can be so…time-consuming. Email lets us shut the door and fire away our updates or to dos without the small talk. Except that we then miss the serendipity and deeper sharing that can come from chatting in person.
It allows us to get information without giving – Signing up for mailing lists, receiving meeting minutes, automated updates from our professional networks, the passive consumption of informational emails shifts the role of email to one of information feed rather than interaction. Which may work well for some things, but be less appropriate in other circumstances. Is mixing the two in your inbox causing stress?
When does email go wrong?
- When it’s sent in the middle of meetings / while doing other things – causing us to be terse, not re-reading what we’ve written
- Because we can’t always infer the intended tone and have no visual clues as to the sender’s intent
- Because it’s asynchronous – we can’t respond in real time leading to confusion within threads where multiple people respond, lack of momentum or over-interpretation of reasons for the delays.
- Often the interfaces are designed to pull us in. Alert noises, pop-up notifications and rising inbox counts all generate a sense of urgency which easily becomes stress and a sense of being enslaved by our inboxes
Why do we let our relationship to email get like this?
Over-scheduled work days – A day that’s blocked out with back-to-back meetings simply doesn’t leave any time for in-person interactions and relationship-building so everything necessarily gets dealt with in our inboxes.
Lack of practice (and therefore willingness) to converse in person. The less we do it, the more arduous it feels to try.
Lack of intention setting about email etiquette – What if we chose to take control of when we respond? Could you set an out of office message explaining when you respond to emails during the day and help to change the culture around your use of emails?
Remote working / WFH days – When team members work from home or permanently work from a remote location, it can become easier to communicate electronically than to pick up the phone or schedule check-in meetings in advance.
Do you have any tips for managing your inbox? If you manage a team have you deliberately discussed the culture of email? Are there other online tools that you’re using to attempt to replace email?