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If our economy runs on oil, than our workplaces can be said to run on e-mail. What if we committed to changes there as well, and not by 2030 or 2050, as in the response to climate change, but by next September or January, seeking a world without e-mail in your office. If that sounds impossible, think back to last March; we transformed our workplaces to remote in the snap of a finger. If it sounds ridiculous to compare e-mail to climate change and the pandemic, which are grave emergencies threatening our health, think again. E-mail threatens our well-being. And besides, it’s not as productive as it seems.

Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, has been studying the perils of e-mail and in A World without Email – perhaps the most important business book of recent years, by tackling how to do the seemingly impossible – lays out lessons from organizations that are managing right now to operate effectively without e-mail.

He documents how e-mail has made us less productive and more miserable, thrusting us into what he labels a “hyperactive hive mentality” that doesn’t mesh with the way the human brain has evolved to operate. It forces us to spend a third of our working hours in our inbox, suffering through constant context switches that sap mental energy and cognitive performance, diverting us from the deep work that would produce heightened results.

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But you sense that. And although he offers individual salves, we’ve had plenty of those over the years. The key is that he goes beyond that to show it is possible – now – for entire organizations or the particular unit or project team you head to reduce e-mail or even live without it. That involves understanding the processes by which you complete work in your office and then finding other ways to organize than e-mail and instant messages. Sometimes that’s as simple as tracking progress on collaborative work through a spreadsheet but usually it involves some sort of software with cards that list the elements of work being performed as well as detailed notes, so instead of being bombarded today with information on something you will only be dealing with next week, the messages rest with that activity in a storehouse until you need them. Managers and short stand-up daily huddles to assign and explain assignments would still exist but e-mail is gone or very limited.

E-mail was added to our world of work with little planning and thought. We adjust to it rather than vice-versa. Even in workplaces that are proudly innovative about their products and organizational processes he notes the spirit of experimentation and reinvention is not applied to e-mail. Interestingly, he points out that in a 1999 article, organizational theorist Peter Drucker argued that in terms of productivity thinking knowledge work was where industrial manufacturing was in 1900, before the radical experiments that increased productivity by 50 times. Some companies Prof. Newport unearthed are hotbeds of such innovation.

Traditionally in the industrial sector the primary capital resources were materials and equipment. In knowledge work it’s the human brain and he therefore sets out an “attention capital principle”: The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify work flows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.

One of many pathfinding examples he shares is a small marketing company where the owner decided instead of his team’s day being structured by e-mails his employees should decide what to work on and then, once they made that decision, limit their attention to that choice until they were ready to move on to something else, assisted by Trello, with an assortment of boards, columns and cards that they use to collaborate in harmony with their attention capital.

If you are willing to experiment, he urges you to seek workflows that minimize mid-task context switches and minimize the sense of communication overload – that everyone needs everyone else they work with at all times. Yes, that means someone can’t shoot off an e-mail and get a quick answer. Indeed, that will be a big barrier to change – e-mail seems convenient. Any workflow change will be less convenient and take time to learn. But you will still be able to get quick answers when truly needed and major changes are desperately required to protect attention capital – those convenient e-mails you send may be inconvenient and disruptive for recipients.

Another barrier will be the claim it can’t work in your field because everything is fluid – changing all the time. But he insists even in knowledge work there is always a process you can focus on, eliminating e-mail to make the work less draining. A key will be establishing new protocols like corporate office hours and restricting clients’ access to you in a way they will find positive. “In the knowledge sector, working on fewer things but doing each thing with more quality and accountability, can be the foundation for significantly more productivity,” he writes.

No doubt it can’t work for every situation. But today’s hyperactive hive is a crazy way to work. You owe it to yourself and the people you lead to consider a better way of working.

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Cannonballs

  • The better your automated customer service options, the worse your customer service experience argues Columbia Business School business professor Rita McGrath. The unintended consequence is when your customer needs and finally gets to a real person, they are already enraged and their problems mercilessly complicated.
  • More than one in four companies have invested in new technologies to monitor their remote employees during the pandemic according to Gartner research, from scheduling software to auditing tools, to replacing manager feedback through artificial intelligence.
  • Investor Warren Buffett compared corporate acquisitions to fairy tales: “Many managements apparently were overexposed in impressionable childhood years to the story in which the imprisoned handsome prince is released from a toad’s body by a kiss from a beautiful princess. Consequently, they are certain their managerial kiss will do wonders for the profitability of Company T (arget)…. We’ve observed many kisses but very few miracles.”

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