Email is broken

Email is broken. Not just email. Text messages. WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger. Google hangouts. Twitter direct messages. Snapchat. The number of options we have for communicating with each other instantaneously online are proliferating and the vast majority of them are broken.

But my blog posts can often veer towards the over-long so let’s focus on email.

Jane works for Acme Inc. She is a knowledge worker. She has a professional job. She gets into the office at 8 AM. The first thing she does is to check her email. She deletes the spam, puts a little flag on the three or four emails that she really must deal with in the next couple of hours, replies with “LOL — that was so cute!” to a video her colleague sent her, and spends a few more minutes trying to work out how to deal with a client issue that is described in a ranty essay from her boss. The first quick triage has taken three quarters of an hour. Jane has three new tasks to complete, and a client-related problem to puzzle over.

Here we see the first major problem with email. More and more people are using their inboxes as their task lists. Oh sure, we’ll say that we still have task lists. We don’t admit to using our inboxes as our task lists, but most people when they read through their email inbox will execute then and there any task that takes less than a certain amount of time. That threshold differs between people. What’s yours? “It will only take me 10 minutes so I might as well do it now.” That was mine. Sometimes the threshold slips.

Imagine you are the sort of person who uses a paper to do list. A colleague comes into the office and says that she needs you to do something for her. You’re very busy today, and you have prioritised the work that you can reasonably get done that day. Do you simply handover your paper to do list to your colleague and tell her to go wild? Do you give her the power to decide what you’re going to work on that day? My guess is that that would seem like a dereliction of your own responsibility, as a professional, to organise your own time and make sure that you meet deadlines. And yet that is precisely what we are doing with email.

Your email inbox is an atrocious task list because anybody can write on the list.

After making herself a cup of coffee and working on one of today’s priorities for nearly an hour, Jane feels the twitch and without really thinking checks her email just quickly in case there is anything urgent. There is an email from one of her colleagues, forwarding a 2000-word document. The sender’s only contribution to the email is the word “thoughts?” And Jane is the 37th person in the distribution list. Jane ows this guy a favour from last week when she asked his advice, so she skims the document and replies with three or four hasty points. It takes her 20 minutes and by the time she’s done, she has pretty much forgotten where she was up to with this morning’s priority task.

Here we see two more ways in which email is utterly broken. Our social mores around email are a hangover from the days of letter writing. If you took the time to write a letter by hand, address an envelope, buy a stamp, and pop it in the post, then you expected an answer. It was rude not to reply. It was ruder still to leave that letter unopened or throw it away unread. The same social rules now apply to email. Except, the costs for the sender and recipient have been reversed. It used to take time to write a letter, and it would cost money to send it. If you wanted to send it to lots of people the costs were multiplied. Nowadays, most people can type faster than they can write, but our reading speed hasn’t really changed. The cost of the stamp, the paper, the ink, and the envelope, have been replaced by the cost of sending a couple of kilobits through a cable — a cost so low it’s not worth calculating. In about one minute, Jane’s colleague constructed a long distribution list, typed the word “thoughts?” and thus interrupted the work of 37 colleagues.

And those interruptions matter. Psychologists have produced plenty of evidence over the last 30 years that switching between tasks generally reduces performance, especially when those tasks are complex. Psychologists have christened one phenomenon “attention residue”. This is the amount of our mental processing power that still seems to be wrapped up with the previous task when we switch between tasks, reducing our ability to work effectively on the new task. That description doesn’t even touch on the increase in stress that follows such a working pattern.

Jane doesn’t dare go longer than a couple of hours without checking her email because she knows that her boss is one of the modern breed of managers who mistakenly believe that constant connectivity is the gateway to good collaboration. Besides, her clients have come to expect it.

That disrespectful email I just mentioned was sent by Jane’s colleague John. Maybe it’s worth asking ourselves why John sent an email to over three dozen people, carelessly adding only the word “thoughts?”.

Of course, like everyone else in the company, John is very busy. This morning he arrived to an inbox of nearly a hundred messages. Even when he had dealt with the spam there was more than could be dealt with in the time available. He skimmed through the 2000 word document, didn’t know for sure how to deal with it. Except, of course, he did know. John is a good modern worker, and is therefore risk averse and inclined to think that more heads are always better than one. In forwarding the document to lots of his colleagues and asking for their thoughts, John can feel comfortable in the knowledge that if they now miss something important in the document it is a collective oversight. And besides, he doesn’t have the time today to go through this document with a fine tooth comb because he has dozens of emails to deal with before his afternoon full of meetings.

Here we see the final big problem with email I want to discuss. Economists often talk of externalised costs. Take a factory synthesising fertilisers. It takes in water upstream and releases it downstream, having not fully removed chemicals produced at various stages in the synthesis. Downstream, there are algal blooms, nasty smells, and so on. Communities downstream from the factory suffer considerably as a result of its existence. To any sensible outside observer, a very great cost is being paid by those communities for the work done by the factory. On balance, it may be that the good done by this factory is outweighed by the damage it is doing directly to the communities downstream of it. But unless the government legislates to make the factory clean up its act or pay those communities compensation, then this cost will never appear in the accounts of the company that runs the factory and so by conventional metrics, it will be considered profitable. The cost is external to the company.

The same seems to be the case with email. From his perspective, and in the short term, John has just spent a mere minute getting off his task list something that would have taken him an hour or longer to deal with. The fact that he has created 20 minutes of work for each of the people on his distribution list is for him and externality. Standing outside this system we can easily multiply 37 by 20 and to see that John has just created over 12 hours of work for his colleagues, saving himself only one hour of work in the bargain. As an outsider, we can see that this is spectacularly inefficient. But from John’s perspective, pressed for time in a busy working day, faced with a communication system that seems to have no cost, the decision is an obvious one.

What John really fails to take into account is that such behaviours generalise across cultures. Some of the people to whom John has sent his one word email and long attachment may mistakenly think this is an efficient way to communicate. Next week or the week after they may return the favour, and John will find in his inbox perhaps not one but two or three messages that each require 20 minutes of his time. And soon most of the people in the company are at it. Maybe they don’t all send one word emails, but they start to believe that the right way to deal with an issue is usually to communicate the nature of the problem and any supporting documents to a handful of colleagues, to get their opinion. They suffer from the same illusion as John. They too believe that it is efficient because it allows them to strike something off their own task list — often they can do so immediately that they have sent the email!

Just like that the entire company slows down, until it’s doing one tenth as much work overall, with everyone doing everyone else’s work.

True collaboration.

Here’s Tom Cochrane, Chief Technology Officer of Atlantic Media:

By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs.

Like I said, email is broken.