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#40: A World Without Email

A World Without Email Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload (or the hyperactive hive mind

Email is making us miserable. By trying to be more efficient, we’ve accidentally deployed an inhumane way to work.

Cal Newport

Thinking big 💡

I have a love-hate relation with email. Love the convenience of it as a messaging tool but hate stuff piling up and having to go through it all. 

6083 in my personal Gmail account 😱 

Over half the world population uses email in 2021. The total number of business and personal emails sent and received per day will exceed 319 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow to over 376 billion by 2025. Despite the growth of chat apps, we still use email, and you need an email address for most online activity. I spend most of my day in work inboxes – it’s where the magic happens – sign off, editing, documents because it’s faster and in real-time—the ping-pong game…like a slot machine. 

The overall feeling is low-level anxiety like my work is never done.

  • We check our emails every six minutes 
  • Knowledge workers receive and send an average of 126 emails every day 
  • We spend an average of three hours a day on email

A growing body of research on the effect of email suggests banning or putting restrictions on email can dramatically increase individual productivity and reduce stress. Companies have also taken action to reverse the trend. Thierry Breton, CEO of the French information tech company, Atos Origin, noticed his employees were distracted by constant emails, so he took steps to eliminate what he saw as adverse effects on productivity. In 2011, he announced he was banning email and wanted Atos to be a ‘zero email company within three years. 

We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives. We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.

Thierry Breton, CEO, Atos Origin

The solution was not to ban electronic communication outright for over 70,000 employees; instead, they built a social network organised around 7,500 open communities working on collaborative projects. Atos hasn’t got rid of email entirely but reduced it by 60%, increasing their margins and reducing administrative costs. 

The movement to protect leisure time is gaining ground. The EU parliament voted massively in favour last month of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a law allowing digital workers the ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work to reduce burnout. Research shows people who work from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week. And we’re putting in more hours since Covid – two a day on average.

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload

Penguin Books

Last Friday, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email. Cal, aka Mr Deep Work, is a Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. 

The chapter focuses on an aspect of overload culture that isn’t talked about much – that email is making us miserable. The more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become. What makes this a game-changer is that Cal is putting the onus on companies to make top-down changes rather than focusing on the individual as per earlier books. As Peter Drucker said back in the 70s, knowledge workers are autonomous, but only to a point.

As a freelancer, you can create your own systems and habits to manage information, but it’s not going to make much difference if your clients don’t work in the same way. 

The hyperactive hivemind 

Our workplaces are set up for convenience, not for getting the best out of us. We must be switched on to multitask with knowledge work, which doesn’t fit in with creative, deep thinking. Neuroscientists tell us our attention is single-tasked, and it’s not productive to switch from one task to another. This is making us miserable. 

It mismatches with the social circuits in our brain. It makes us feel bad that someone is waiting for us to reply to them. It makes us anxious.

Cal Newport

Cal describes this workstyle as the ‘hyperactive hivemind’ based around unstructured communications via email and IM and meetings that dominate our day. Email is fine for short communications as intended, but it’s a terrible knowledge management system. 

How do we tackle the hivemind and do our best work?

Cal says we need a more linear approach to workflow. Doing one task at a time to allow the brain to switch contexts – with fewer interruptions from email & IM. One study found (via BBC Worklifeon average, it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain a deep focus after an interruption

We can learn a lot from how software engineers operate – extreme programming, Scrum & Agile methodologies. Working on one product for a period of time and giving it your whole focus. A more intense, shorter day of deep work with no ad hoc tasks works better with how our brain operates. Try applying Sprint methodology to your creative work – pitches, ideas. 

Work on the productivity of the knowledge worker has barely begun. Globally, the world has more than 1 billion knowledge workers, so we’re well overdue for a rethink & revolution.

It’s coming!!

The next five years will see an insane amount of change and we’ll be embarrassed that we opted for ease over efficiency with email. There’s a lot of interest in getting rid of the hyperactive hivemind to produce higher quality products and services because money and productivity are on the line.

Companies that require their workers to be ever wired and working on multiple tasks will fall behind companies that prioritise more in-depth, slow creative work.

It’s a radical and bold vision – a world without email – that could make you happier and more productive. As Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland, the author of Infobesity, says, information overload is a cultural crisis.

There’s this great challenge of lundimanche that we must tackle, – the French portmanteau word for the blurring of Sunday into Monday. 

Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland

It’s time to change how we communicate at work. 

The advice 🤔

  • Use Calendly instead of emails to arrange meetings to reduce the back-and-forth comms.
  • Use shared project management tools like Trello, Dropbox or Flow to organise tasks and share links so your team know what you’re working on, can see status updates and add comments – it reduces the pressure on your inbox. 
  • Basecamp has ‘Office Hours’ – if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can’t shoot an email and has to wait until the expert’s next office hours to ask a question.
  • Get rid of personal email addresses and have a team/project email so everyone can respond. 
  • Try Scrum/Agile methodology – combines working in intense sprints (1-4-week projects) with daily 15-minute standing meetings to get things done. Everyone gets a chance to speak and ask for help. Pin coloured notes to a board to show commitments, so there’s no ambiguity.

If it works for 12+ million software developers…

Go deeper 🕵🏻‍♀️

🎧 The James Altucher Show – A World Without Email with Cal Newport.

💻 The New Yorker: Email is Making Us Miserable and The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.

📹 LinkedIn Live: Journey Further Book Club with Cal Newport – A World Without Email, March 16. 

📚 Under New Management by David Burkus – the companies outlawing or at least restricting email and getting more done.

🎤 National Union of Journalists event, March 8 – a chat with John Crowley, co-author of the Journalism in Time of Covid survey, on freelancing and mental health.

Guests welcome – email me!! if you’d like to come.  

Categories
Newsletter

The Shift: Issue #18

How to be productive WFH without going crazy; The State of Remote Work 2020 Report; Inbox Zero.

I did some training this week on ‘how to be productive working from home without going crazy’ with Thanh Pham, founder of Asian Efficiency.

Marie Kondo’s relative, surely!?!

I’ve been working from home for years and enjoy it, but am curious to know what else I can do to improve my set up and make it more fun. We’re six months into this global WFH experiment, and after this week’s government U-turn, it looks set to continue for another six months.

So, what have we learned so far? Will WFH be a permanent thing for companies or just a byproduct of the ‘interim economy’—a term used to describe the theoretical two years it could take for the economy to bounce back after lockdown? A new report on The State of Remote Work Q3 2020, highlights some significant and emerging trends. Read more.