Maybe the most divisive topic in remote work is whether email is a help or a hindrance to our productivity. It’s fast, convenient and pretty much free. On the other hand, there’s too much of it, our inboxes are inundated, and responding to all those notifications stops us from doing other, more productive, work. There is a whole cottage industry of experts saying we need to use it better or smarter, while still others advocate for getting rid of it entirely. Is that even possible?
I am old enough (just barely, thank you) to remember a time before email. In the approximately 30 years or so I’ve been a manager, we’ve gone from email becoming a new and better replacement for fax machines and traditional mail, to being the default manner of communication in the workplace. It has allowed people to collaborate from anywhere in the world at almost the speed of light. We send emails to people two desks away from us.
Email is largely responsible for the fact that we can work remotely as productively as we do. Can you imagine making it through the pandemic without it? And as imperfect as email is, what are the alternatives?
The Hyperactive Hive Mind
The reason email overwhelms us, according to experts like Cal Newport, author of A World Without Email-Reimaging Work in an Age of communication Overload, is that we try to recreate the way we work in an office. We engage in what he calls, “the hyperactive hive mind.” This means we try to respond instantly to requests and new information as quickly as we would if the person were to ask it to our face. In person, we can see if the person has received our message, and we can promise to deal with things when it’s the right time. That’s hard to do when we work remotely. In order to look like responsive teammates, we drop what we’re doing and treat every incoming email as if it’s equally important. Conversations go back and forth, adding or elaborating information as they go on. Email threads do the same thing, only they can go back and forth for days or weeks without reaching a conclusion.
The alternatives depend on what you’re trying to achieve with the communication in the first place:
Just as in our personal lives, text messages are great for quick, short messages when we need to reach someone in the fastest way possible—which these days is our cell phone. This should be used for quick yes/no type questions or updates or to find out if someone is available to have a richer conversation.
Chat conversations, messaging apps, collaboration channels
Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and others can reduce or eliminate email in several ways. First, people tend to have these tools on all the time while they are at work, and status updates let others know when we are unavailable. Setting up conversations or channels based on topic, work team, or individuals separates messages from a single email box, which can make it easier to focus on one task at a time.
Additionally, these tools work both synchronously and asynchronously. You can leave a message for later, add to it at any time, and stay on topic. You can also be very specific about recipients, eliminating the number of “cc”s and stuffing the inbox of people who don’t care about that topic at that time.
These tools also let us shift gears quickly: If communicating in writing isn’t getting you closer to a solution you can fire up a one-on-one conversation with the push of a button or call a meeting. These tools also integrate with other applications and platforms making it easy to access information in real time. These tools also work best on devices with real keyboards, which means you can craft longer, clearer, and more professional messages than with your thumbs.
Telephone. (The part you talk with)
There was a time when the only thing you could do on a telephone was talk. This still adds value, and a clear, detailed voicemail often allows easy access and clearer information than an email. Using the phone these days also indicates a level of urgency or importance that might not be obvious in an email. Plus, you can strengthen and clarify your message with the tone of voice you use. You can talk while walking, driving, or in places it might not be easy to type a message.
Actually meeting in person
Most of the problems with meetings lie in the fact you shouldn’t be meeting at all. But when it is the right thing to do, using asynchronous tools to help people come in prepared and focused can actually end a lot of email threads that threaten to go on forever. Every person on the team should be empowered to call a halt to a thread and demand people change how they talk to each other. Sometimes a short synchronous meeting (in person or online) is better than any other solution.
Of course, email still works. If you stop before replying, consider other options (or if you need to stop what you’re doing and respond at all) and take the time to be clear, you’ll reduce the amount of email you have to deal with. You can also coach those you work with to use the right tool for the right job which will make your job easier and help speed collaboration and accuracy.
The trick, as with so much in life, is consciously choosing the right form of communication for the task at hand, rather than just responding without thinking.
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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.