Turning off email won’t help

Earlier in the week, the BBC ran a package on its Breakfast programme about how Intel has become “the latest in an increasingly long line of companies to launch a so-called ‘no e-mail day’.”

On Fridays, 150 of its engineers revert to more old-fashioned means of communication.

In actual fact e-mail isn’t strictly forbidden but engineers are encouraged to talk to each other face to face or pick up the phone rather than rely on e-mail.

In Intel’s case the push to look again at the culture of e-mail followed a comment from chief executive Paul Otellini criticising engineers “who sit two cubicles apart sending an e-mail rather than get up and talk”.

As the BBC says, this isn’t new – other companies have been doing this for some time. But I don’t think that Intel’s initiative is going to have that much of an impact, and I don’t think that ‘no email days’ are going to help.

For starters, Intel’s initiative is only aimed at 150 engineers so it’s no more than a tiny pilot affecting only 0.16% of its total staff of over 94,000. Engineers are not a representative sample, either, even for an organisation as tech-oriented as Intel. And in my experience, initiatives that start in engineering or IT do not naturally spread through the rest of the company. Programmers speak a different language to, say, sales or HR, and there aren’t natural migration pathways for viral behaviours to spread from one set of employees to the other.

That’s assuming, of course, that turning off email for a day is the sort of behaviour that goes viral. I’m pretty sure it’s not – it’s actually harder to not look at email than it is to check it compulsively all day. Email overuse works on the same principle as slot machines: repetitive behaviour that results in intermittent rewards is creates the perfect conditions for dependence. As Mindhacks says:

[I]f you want to train an animal to do something, consistently rewarding that behaviour isn’t the best way. The most effective training regime is one where you give the animal a reward only sometimes, and then only at random intervals. Animals trained like this, with what’s called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’, work harder for their rewards, and take longer to give up once all rewards for the behaviour is removed.

[…] Checking email is a behaviour that has variable interval reinforcement. Sometimes, but not everytime, the behaviour produces a reward. Everyone loves to get an email from a friend, or some good news, or even an amusing web link. Sometimes checking your email will get you one of these rewards. And because you can never tell which time you check will produce the reward, checking all the time is reinforced, even if most of the time checking your email turns out to have been pointless. You still check because you never know when the reward will come.

Email overuse (I’m trying to steer clear of the word “addiction” because it’s just too loaded) is not a simple behaviour, and simple solutions such as telling people to turn it off for a day will not work in the long term. Attempting to change people’s behaviour – getting them to check email less often, or turning email off for a day – is likely to be futile, even if you understand the psychology of it, because behavioural change very difficult to achieve. Frequently, those who use email in a sub-optimal manner are entirely unaware that they have a problem and see no reason why they should put any effort into changing.

Another reason why days off won’t work is because the main problem with email, apart from the obsessive checking, is overload. Turning it off for a day doesn’t significantly change the amount of email that you actually receive, it just means that it piles up in your inbox whilst you’re off doing other things. If your whole team turns email off for a day, then some communications that may have happened by email will instead be carried out by phone or in person, whilst others issues will remain mentally queued for sending when email is allowed again. Communications from people who aren’t turning email off will continue to come in and, not only will they be waiting for you when you finally do turn email back on, you’ll know that they are there, lurking. This is why it’s hard to turn email off: it’s too trivial to turn it back on again just in case something fun/important has arrived.

A more effective way to tackle business email is to look for specific tasks that are being done on a regular basis and move them to another, more suitable tool. Collaborating on documents, for example, is a really bad use of email. Creating a spreadsheet, Word document or Powerpoint slide deck and then emailing it round to people for comment is a very clumsy process. Not only do you have to collate and hand-merge the comments from the various people involved, you are also duplicating the files in multiple inboxes and (possibly) hard drives across the network, clogging up the infrastructure with unnecessary data. And, of course, one go round is never enough – these emails can fly back and forth and back again for days or even weeks.

Instead, using a wiki or something like Google Documents to collaborate on a document is a simpler and much more efficient way to work. Everyone can see everyone else’s changes, so there’s no duplication of effort; discussions don’t get split across inboxes; sign-off is easily co-ordinated; and you can see who has edited and (depending on software) who has viewed the pages so can nag anyone who needs to be involved but who isn’t. Collaboration done in collaborative tools is significantly easier than doing it over email. And “collaboration” doesn’t have to mean something big – it can be as trivial as asking someone to proof read an email.

Equally, moving regular newsletters that are being sent out by email – and I don’t believe there can be a single big organisation that doesn’t regularly send out newsletters, updates, and other gubbins to everyone by email – onto a blog and letting people receive them via RSS reduces the occupational spam load by allowing people to subscribe to to just those feed that are interesting or pertinent.

The problem is, of course, that it’s easy to proclaim a No Email Day and look like you’re doing something big and important. It’s harder to actually look at what your employees are doing on a day to day basis and figure out how you can help them permanently reduce their email output whilst simultaneously allowing them to do their work more efficiently. That’s not a simple nor quick solution, because the use case differs from group to group, or even person to person, but it’s one that works.

Of course, most companies have no idea how their employees are really using email, and most employees aren’t concerned about how to improve the way they use it. One client of mine did some work to find out how people used their computers, and the results would make your toes curl. People using email as a ‘to do’ list manager, sending themselves emails with the to do item in the subject line; people with 50,000 unread emails in their inboxes; people using their email drafts folder as a file repository by attaching files to emails and saving them as drafts… the list went on.

If Intel really wants to reduce email load, it’s going to have to do a lot more than just ask 150 engineers to turn it off on Fridays. I wonder if it has the smarts – or the guts – to go for a real email reduction strategy.

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