When people complain about email, I get it. You’re working from home and the barrage of pinging, flashing icons and messages piling up never seems to stop. We hear all kinds of moaning about the volume, lack of clarity, and just plain rudeness in people’s inboxes. Those are all legitimate complaints. But I am old enough to remember the “before times.” I was around before email.
Pull up a rock next to the dinosaur corral and let me tell you about it.
Once upon a time…
My first management job was in 1996. The small mom and pop franchise I worked for was not on the forefront of technology, to put it mildly. The first major cross-company project I worked on was rolling out email across the six local offices. Why me? I was the brilliant person who discovered that you could have three different AOL addresses on a single account. Before then we had one dial-up account per office, and the only person with access was the administrative assistant. Wait, salespeople could have their own email addresses? Managers like me can get messages immediately to their team members (at least the ones with personal email)… FOR NO MORE MONEY? Sign us up.
Dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
Here is what office communication was like back then:
- If you wanted fast answers, you used the phone, which only transmitted voice so you had to actually talk to the person you wanted something from. Maybe you could fax, but probably not to someone’s home.
- Most managers, sales people, and those who worked outside the company wrote letters (often by hand) that then were given to talented but low-paid assistants to type, proof, and mail.
- Needless to say, you had to make decisions about why, how and when you wanted to communicate with someone. It took time to plan, patience to get an answer, and a lot of work, so you picked your shots.
- It worked. This is just how business got done.
Then the asteroid struck.
The age of email arrived, and things slowly changed. There were some seismic changes:
- Suddenly everyone (especially salespeople) needed a laptop computer, even though none of us knew how to use it very well.
- Managers and Salespeople could communicate directly with customers in writing without going through their manager or an assistant. You wouldn’t believe how unprofessional, misspelled and just plain weird some of those early emails were.
- When I taught my first “How to Use Email” class, the biggest problem was people writing too much. (Really, it’s true.) Emails had the same style and format as written communication. They were super formal (“pursuant to your letter of the 17th….”) And there were no emojis… you had to pick your words carefully to ensure understanding and context.
- Assistants, who used to take a lot of the daily tasks off the shoulders of leaders and others became an endangered species. Managers especially had to handle all the administrative tasks (scheduling, minor announcements, separating junk mail/spam from legit correspondence) Our days became a lot fuller.
This wasn’t necessarily bad. (Okay, deciding you didn’t have to hire assistants was a purely financial decision that changed the workplace forever, and not necessarily for the best).
Email brings positive changes
Email has a lot of positive uses.
- You can get answers to questions at the speed of light.
- It’s cheap and your business and work suddenly had global reach.
- You don’t have to rely on the post office in whichever country you live in (nobody likes their post office and everyone thinks their country’s is the worst. It probably isn’t).
- You don’t have to be in the office to receive your correspondence and it saves a lot of trees. Except those of us who methodically printed out all emails for “safekeeping.”
Since I remember what it was like before, I am not one of those who curses email. It made remote work practical and possible. Like all tools, we’ve gotten sloppy and lazy with how we use it. Whenever I complain about too much email, or how badly people abuse each other’s time with it, I think about what it used to be like.
Trust me. It’s better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.