We spend hours tending it, check on it frantically at night, and even break off conversations when it makes a noise. But as email turns 40 years old, should we be learning to let go a little? John Hill finds out more about No Email Day.
WHEN I was a kid, I often wondered how Batman responded to the Batsignal so quickly. It’s all very well leaping straight across the rooftops if he’s leaning against the window waiting for a light in the sky, but what happens if he’s folding sheets in the basement or stuck on the phone?
Crime moves quickly on the dark streets of Gotham, so surely it’s unreasonable to expect him to keep his eyes peeled and hot-foot it across town in the time it takes for a bag to be snatched?
I sometimes think about Batman when I get calls from people chasing up emails.
There seems to be an unwritten code among folk that send emails that instant delivery means instant response. If it doesn’t come within hours, assume you’ve offended them. If it doesn’t come within a day, assume they’re stuck in an avalanche somewhere and call the police. We live in a world where a message from one person to another can be sent in a split second, whether they’re in Birmingham or the Bahamas. But if we spend our days herding this information into folders like laptop shepherds, when do we get our work done?
“There’s too many people that react like Pavlov’s Dog when an email comes in”, says Paul Lancaster, a PNE Group project manager and founder of digital marketing firm Plan Digital. “The speed of email is a great thing, but it’s also a bad thing as it makes people impatient for an immediate response. Managing your email can be a massive time suck.”
Lancaster struggled for several years with what he calls “the race to zero”; the struggle toward that corporate nirvana in which every email in your inbox has been deleted, filed or dealt with. He did it once just before Christmas last year, for the first time in 10 years. He did it again on April 13, but only for 45 minutes. It was then he sat down overnight and wrote a manifesto which effectively contained one clear message.
On November 11, for 24 hours, there would be a No Email Day.
“I was convinced a lot of people would feel the same way”, he says. “I’m proposing that people don’t even look at their email for 24 hours. Just get on with other work. Pick up the phone. Write a letter. Go out for the day and have face-to-face meetings. Don’t put up an out of office message, because then you’re just sending another email.
“I’m not the first person to suggest this, but I’ve read statistics that say people spend 49 minutes a day on average managing their email and refresh 30 to 40 times an hour. I hear 262bn spam messages are sent in a day, and 89.1% of all emails are spam.
“There are people interested in this all over the place, from North America to Australia. Some people absolutely love the idea. Others think it’s crazy, and say they couldn’t function without email. But why? You’re not going to die if you don’t check your email for 24 hours.”
In fact, Luis Suarez has spent more than four years without corporate email. No, he doesn’t live in a cave. In fact, he’s been working for IBM for around 11 years. In his blog at elsua.net, Suarez says that while email is not dead, it is “just one of the options we have got available out there”.
He says: “We are finally seeing the light and acknowledging that while it was once was the king of communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing, this is no longer the case in today’s world, with the social web having a much more relevant and purposeful set of intentions that are driving how we connect, share and innovate with our peers, but also with our customers and business partners.”
In a report early last year, analyst Gartner said social software platforms would replace email as the primary communication tool by 2014. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said that “high school kids don’t use email” a year ago, adding the real need was for “lighter weight things like SMS and IM”.
“I find Twitter and Facebook exchanges to be much more efficient for me”, says Codeworks CEO and Thinking Digital conference founder Herb Kim.
“I think at this very moment, my inbox has 6,026 unread emails in it. I try to unsubscribe from as much as I can, but I’m still not really keeping up. I’ve got spam filters, but some messages get caught up in there so I do spend time going through the spam folder just in case.
“When I was working in a large organisation, you’d go on holiday and when you’d come back two weeks later you’d see a furious chain of emails that had been resolved by the time you got back. Of course, if you’d been there, you’d have been sucked into this cyclone too. Maybe that’s happening a little less because of things like social media.
“I suppose email replicates that whole broadcast mentality of marketing and advertising; that idea of reaching as many people of a relevant demographic as possible, and basically sending out your message to any number of people you don’t know.”
Kim says that he’d be interested in seeing Codeworks get involved in marking the day in some way, even if it was just restricting the use of company emails to emergency responses only.
“Maybe you could read a book or do some filing instead. If you look at a lot of offices that are very wired, they can be quite untidy because there’s always something to act on and something to share.
“Because of the urgency of email it demands to be dealt with immediately even if it’s not that urgent. Technology is powerful.”
Email is a huge part of many people’s day jobs, and many develop systems for dealing with them. Admiral PR’s account manager Vicky Neill says she’s not a huge lover of email, but that it’s essential to her job.
“In the PR industry, it’s an essential tool and you have to have constant access to your email. I probably get about 80 or 90 a day,” she says. “I’ve got 40 folders in my inbox, and I have to organise my emails otherwise they get lost. I have to read everything. I can’t have numbers up the side of my inbox. I can’t have unread emails, even in my deleted items. If they’re there, I have to delete them.”
However, Neill says she always prefers to talk to people on the phone if she can, because it can avoid the crossed wires that come from written exchanges.
“It’s important to build a relationship with someone”, she says. “Some people email each other all the time and don’t talk at all. If someone says something sarcastically, you might not know how to interpret it.
“You could try communicating less by email, or maybe Tweeting people more. Personally, I always come back to the phone or a face-to-face meeting.”
Caroline Theobald juggles a busy life, with roles such as managing director of Bridge Club and Swedish consul in Newcastle.
She points out that, while email is “omnipresent” in life now, it also encourages people to make speedy rather than considered decisions.
“It’s changed the nature of communication”, she says. “When you sent a letter, you didn’t expect people to reply the next day because it hadn’t arrived by then. You’d have to get on the blower. Now, if you don’t get a reply that same day, you start thinking people aren’t interested.
“I must get around 100 emails a day on average. What I’ve attempted to do now is prioritise the traffic. When you do things at speed, you act rather than reflect.
“If you were to have a day when you weren’t responding to emails, it would be interesting to see if you can take a more reflective approach to what you’re doing.
“Email can be a very crude, blunt instrument. Of course, if you’re emailing someone, they can do something else while they’re answering. People have to concentrate more on what you’re saying when you call them.”
Former Sage head of customer services Guy Letts now runs CustomerSure, the Cramlington software-as-a-service firm that helps businesses to manage their customers better.
He says: “I now get the same volume of email as a start-up as I did in a corporate. The difference is that in a corporate I was getting emails about obstacles in the car park and other things of limited relevance sent by people who were not being responsible or discerning.
“I think about 10% of the emails I got in that situation were relevant, whereas now about 90% are relevant to ourselves or our customers.”
However, he says the blame lies not so much in the medium, but in the culture that dictates how people use it.
“I really sympathise with the sentiment, but I don’t like the idea you have to do a day for this and a day for that. I actually went on holiday during National Customer Service Week.
“If you focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying attitudes and causes, you may solve the problem for a day but it will still be there waiting for you the next day. I applaud Paul for making a stand, but in the end it comes down to the culture of an organisation, and that’s tied to the attitudes of the leaders.
“I’ve seen people go into work, sit on their emails all day and go home thinking they’ve done a hard day’s work. Actually they’ve done nothing to improve the company’s product or to improve customer experience. They’ve just cleared their inbox. It shows what a distraction email can be in an organisation that allows that sort of culture.”
Letts also says that the focus on social media is another “red herring”, and that the important thing is dealing with the problem rather than obsessing about the channel of communication.
“It’s not about the communication medium. It’s about your reaction, and whether you can get the problem solved. If you say you can guarantee you’ll solve a customer’s problem quickly and efficiently if they send you a smoke signal, they’ll find a way to send you a smoke signal.
“They’re not contacting you because they want to use a smartphone. They’re contacting you because they have a problem, and you’re the person they think can solve it. You’ve got to focus on getting the problem solved by the person that they speak to first and then leave them to go about their business. And in most cases, they will try to contact you by phone call or email.
“That said, anything that gets people thinking more about their customer and how to serve them better is a good thing.”
As the co-founder of online Gateshead business Ethical Superstore, Andy Redfern admits he “wouldn’t like to scare people off from sending transactional emails”.
However, he does say that establishing and maintaining email discipline is important in any organisation.
He says: “If you were to tell your customers you were having a day off from email and you’d contact them tomorrow, I think that would be a problem. That said, a break from sending internal emails between colleagues would be a welcome and sensible step.
“There’s a danger we can spend all of our lives watching notifications. We even do it in our personal lives, waiting for the little red flashing light on the Blackberry that turns out to be something trivial. Nowadays, people come off the Metro, switch on their phones, and all crash into each other because they’re all looking down to see if they have any new messages.
“I really believe you have to have a culture in place in the organisation for dealing with email, or it can create friction.”
Discipline is something many are trying to impose both in and out of the office. The drive to cut out the waffle has birthed services such as Shortmail, which limits emails to 500 characters. And you’ll see a few people around town setting themselves the challenge of sentenc.es (sic), in which they pledge that every email sent will be limited to a certain number of sentences.
Particularly in larger organisations, there’s a tendency to include other people in email discussions using the “cc” option. Redfern says this can be a drain on time, and Ethical Superstore has set up a system to deal with it.
He says: “We created a rule at Ethical Superstore that if you want someone to do something with an email you put them in the “to” box, and if you wanted to send something just for information you put it in the “cc” box.
“Personally, I used to have an immensely complicated system for managing my email, with multiple tiered folders. I’ve come to the conclusion that, with the better search tools available now, I can have two folders - one marked done, and one marked not done.
“I’ve got an uncle who’s a lawyer and he basically has an out of office that lies. He will say he’s out of office for the next four hours and will just get on with a reading that needs doing for a case. If anything really urgent emerges, someone will call or send an email to a colleague.
“There’s a real danger you can use your email too much in business, when just picking up the phone can be a more effective way of solving the problem immediately. It can also be a chicken’s way out, and I’ve seen people in the past who write an email, press send and then run.
“Quite often for niggling issues it’s good to get off your bum and walk over to someone or pick up the phone.”
For more information on No Email Day, go to www.slideshare.net/lordlancaster/no-email-day-by-paul-lancaster, check the Facebook page or follow @NoEmailDayHQ on Twitter