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My Ear Hurts: Reflections on a Week Without E-mail

One of our board members, Steven T. Hunt, recently experienced a week without email.  I asked him to reflect on what he learned.  His guest blog follows below:

On April 23rd, the CEO of SuccessFactors, the company where I work, sent out an e-mail instructing everyone in the company to restrict use of e-mail to 2 hours per day for one week.  We were to focus on calling people and reestablishing a personal connection that he was concerned was getting lost due to an over-reliance on e-mail communication.

Putting aside the irony of receiving an e-mail to stop using e-mail, I was intrigued by this move to ensure we do not lose the “personal touch” that makes SuccessFactors such a great place to work.   So when Joyce Maroney of the Workforce Institute asked if I would reflect on the experience of living a week without e-mail, I quickly agreed.  So what did I learn from a week without e-mail?

  1. E-mail is extremely useful for a lot of things. A lot has been written about the ills of e-mail, but very little is written about its value.   When you need to communicate quickly to dozens of people working in multiple time zones, it is hard to beat the expediency of an e-mail message.
  2. Alternative media designed to replace e-mail don't work that well, at least not yet. E-mail has a lot of problems, but everyone has an e-mail account and knows how to use it at a basic level.  This is not the case for other tools people suggest as replacements to e-mail.   These other tools may be great, but do you really want to install some new software and go up a technology learning curve just to ask someone a short question or share a simple bit of information?
  3. The phone is great for building relationships and ensuring understanding. E-mail is a lousy tool for discussing complex or emotionally volatile topics where people may struggle to fully understand each others' goals, logic and intentions.  My rule is “if you think people may not understand or could react negatively to an e-mail, then call them on the phone”.  But I admittedly don't always follow this rule.  The week without e-mail exercise reminded me of just how true this rule is.  The phone can provide emotionally rich real time reactions to your statements. This makes it far superior to e-mail for building a shared sense of understanding and agreement on difficult topics.
  4. What makes the phone a good tool for building understanding, also makes it a lousy way to transmit information quickly. Most phone calls start with polite pleasantries about people's welfare and how they are doing.  Even the most focused business call may include humorous asides or stories about people's non work lives.  This is one reason why the phone is so great for building relationships:  it connects us at a much deeper personal level.  But these social pleasantries take time and sometimes all I need is to transmit some factual information.   If we spoke on the phone the way we write e-mails we would be considered rude.  But if we wrote e-mails the way we speak on the phone we would be viewed as long-winded, off topic and inefficient.
  5. Unfettered instant messaging is disruptive. Instant messaging (IM) reminds me of the person who barges into your office without knocking or checking if you are busy.  There are times when setting up an IM conversation is great.  But being pinged by IMs whenever someone wants to talk is annoying if your work requires any real concentration.  People don't, or at least shouldn't expect an immediate response to e-mail but they often do for IMs.  As such, IM should be used very sparingly.
  6. The problem is not e-mail, it is failing to pay enough attention to communication itself. E-mail, IM, texting, blogging, and phone calls can give the illusion of communicating with others but they are just the activities of communication, they aren't its substance.  The substance of communication is comprehending what others are saying and effectively sharing our views in return.  This requires paying attention.   E-mail can give the illusion of having communicated when all we have done is type.  The same is true regarding the phone and talking.
  7. In an increasingly hectic world, we need to guard against substituting the satisfaction of feeling busy for the value of actually transferring knowledge and understanding. If you are talking on the phone, IM'ing, e-mailing and listening to podcasts all at the same time you are not communicating so much as you are dividing your attention.   Significant communication requires us to give our full attention to the people we are communicating with.  This is equally important whether it means turning off your phone and carefully reading and responding to e-mails, or turning off your e-mail and giving your full attention to someone on the phone.

What I most gained from a week without e-mail is the importance of being aware of how much (or how little) attention we give to our efforts to communicate with other.   When Alexander Bell showed President Rutherford Hayes an early telephone in 1876, he responded by saying, "that's an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?"  This same quote could be applied to e-mail, texting, IMing or any other communication medium if taken in the wrong context.  Different communication mediums lend themselves to different situations.  The danger is over-relying on the medium that we find most convenient and comfortable and not paying enough attention to the others.  In other words, pay enough attention to your e-mail to realize when it is time to stop typing and pick up the phone.  And when the person answers your call, stop typing your e-mails and give the speaker your full attention.

Has your company implemented email-free days or otherwise attempted to curb overuse of email?

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