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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Turning off email won’t help

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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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3 Responses to “Turning off email won’t help”

  1. Leandro Herrero Says:

    Your excellent entry - Turning off email wont help- contains a number of important points, some of them music to my ears. I am an organisational consultant developing and successfully implementing broad behavioural and cultural changes in organizations in an unconventional way. We have been working for a while on VIRAL CHANGE™ which in a nutshell uses the power of a small set of behaviours endorsed and modelled by a small number of people (with high degree of influence and/or connectedness in the organization, mainly hidden networks) spreading through the organization like an infection ( or fashion), suddenly appearing tipping points of new established routines (= ‘new culture’). This is described in my book of the same title, VIRAL CHANGE. A summary of the theoretical and practical basis can be found in this 8 page article summary. You’ll understand why I was so excited reading your article! There are many points to pick up!

    1. Why email is addicted – explanation via behavioural sciences ( Mindhacks ) is spotted-on - with a minor glitch ( spotted by a commentator in Mindhacks blog): variable interval reinforcement [getting a reward from time to time, apparently random] only works well once the behaviour has been established. Initially you need to reinforce a new ( desired) behaviour every time if it is ‘new’. But, it doesn’t contaminate the argument since we are starting from the fact that using email ‘all the time’ is a well established behaviour in most of us!

    2. ‘Programmers are not natural migration pathways for viral behaviours to spread’ . I am sympathetic with the spirit of your statement but you would be surprised how viral change does not distinguish between ‘types of behaviours’. Once started and with enough critical mass of people in ‘social copying mode’, the infection spreads no matter what. So, I don’t mind to have programmers in my client pool! Viral Change works regardless. Almost in any function/corporate tribe ( sales, marketing, IT…) you’ll find similar presumptions: individualistic-social-Darwinian-sales people are not good for collaboration or collaborative tools etc. I am proud to be associated to significant ‘cultural changes’ I am leading that were written off ( impossible, never, not in a million years, long….) at the beginning of the intervention. So, don’t despair.

    3. The turning off of emails on Fridays. My experience is that isolated measures such as this one have limited impact if other variables are left untouched. This is by the way a measure that I often find in the context of grandiose ‘work-life’ balance schemes which, in my view, many of them, are fundamentally flawed. If the volume of work, distribution of labour and headcount etc doesn’t change, to ban emails on Fridays or over the week end is far from ‘helpful’ but a new straight jacket. However if the measure were taking in a broader context of behavioural change, it may just be useful as trigger of other behaviours. I say it may because my background in behavioural sciences tells me that it should be theoretically possible! But I haven’t seen it!.

    4. In behavioural terms ‘banning’ is far weaker than promoting (reinforcing) an alternative . Here then I agree with you that if the measure is taken, for example, in the context of introducing bogs or collaborative tools then the potential value is higher. The real trick is to promote, reinforce, reward, ‘infect’ face to face conversations ( for example, when possible) or collaborative tools, MORE THAN make something forbidden –use of email on Fridays

    5. The email-itis disease has got worse and worse since the infection of Blackberries across continents. Now, not only the worker/manager/executive is looking at his/her PC or laptop screen in the office for newly delivered emails but also when he /she is out (field, travelling) he can get anything ‘new’ in his Blackberry. This is the climax of the ‘always-on’ worker who is attached directly to the company server via wireless umbilical cord (I suppose I should trade mark ‘umbilicalberry’!) . It will take a lot of space to navigate through the serious philosophical implications of the 365/24/7 ‘always-on’ executive and I have referred to it in my book The Leader with Seven Faces. Space and time are assets that have become totally commoditised. We need measures to protect ourselves and other working with us/for us from the terminal commoditising syndrome. I am afraid it is a bit more complex than shutting down Outlook on Fridays. Leandro Herrero http://www.thechalfontproject.com

  2. E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Blog Archive » Giving up on Work e-mail - Status Report on Week 29 (Breaking the e-mail Compulsion) Says:

    [...] couple of related blog posts on this very same topic of cutting down on e-mail while at work: "Turning off email won’t help" and "Why e-mail is addictive (and what to do about it)" that I also found [...]

  3. E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Blog Archive » Giving up on Work e-mail - Status Report on Week 29 (Breaking the e-mail Compulsion) Says:

    [...] couple of related blog posts on this very same topic of cutting down on e-mail while at work: "Turning off email won’t help" and "Why e-mail is addictive (and what to do about it)" that I also found [...]