Some thoughts on modern communications and avoiding the “time-Hoover”

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Last week I was reading an article by Shelley Portet looking at how poor productivity and rudeness are influenced by technology interruptions at work. As someone who’s just managed to escape from email jail yet again (actually, I’m on parole – my inbox may finally be at zero but I still have hundreds of items requiring action) I have to say that, despite all the best intentions, experience shows that I’m a repeat offender, an habitual email mis-manager – and email is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Nowadays email is just one of many forms of communication: there’s instant messaging; “web 2.0″ features on intranet sites (blogs, wikis, discussion forums); our internal social networking platform; business and personal use of external social networks (Twitter, LinkedIn, Slideshare, YouTube, Facebook… the list goes on) – so how can we prepare our knowledge workers for dealing with this barrage of interruptions?

There are various schools of thought on email management and I find that Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero principles work well (see this video from Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk using these slides on action-based email – or flick through the Michael Reynolds version for the highlights), as long as one always manages to process to zero (that’s the tricky part that lands me back in email jail).

The trouble is that Inbox Zero only deals with the manifestation of the problem, not the root cause: people. Why do we send these messages? And how do we act on them?

A couple of colleagues have suggested recently that the trouble with email is that people confuse sending an email with completing an action as if, somehow, the departure of the message from someone’s outbox on its way to someone else’s inbox implies a transfer of responsibility. Except that it doesn’t – there are many demands on my colleagues’ time and it’s up to me to ensure that we’re all working towards a common goal. I can help by making my expectations clear; I can think carefully before carbon copying or replying to all; I can make sure I’m brief and to the point (but not ambiguous) – but those are all items of email etiquette. They don’t actually help to reduce the volumes of messages sent and received. Incidentally, I’m using email as an example here – many of the issues are common whatever the communications medium (back to handwritten letters and typed memos as well as forwards to social networking) but, ultimately I’m either trying to:

  • Inform someone that something has happened, will soon happen, or otherwise communicate something on a need to know basis.
  • Request that someone takes an action on something.
  • Confirm something that has been agreed via another medium (perhaps a telephone call), often for audit purposes.

I propose two courses of action, both of which involve setting the expectations of others:

  1. The first is to stop thinking of every message as requiring a response. Within my team at work, we have some unwritten rules that: gratefulness is implied within the team (not to fill each others’ inboxes with messages that say “thank you”); carbon copy means “for information”; and single-line e-mails can be dealt with in the subject heading.
  2. The second can be applied far more widely and that’s the concept of “service level agreements” for corporate communications. I don’t mean literally, of course, but regaining productivity has to be about controlling the interruptions. I suggest closing Outlook. Think of it as an email/calendar client – not the place in which to spend one’s day – and the “toast” that pops up each time a message arrives is a distraction. Even having the application open is a distraction. Dip in 3 times a day, 5 times a day, every hour, or however often is appropriate but emails should not require nor expect an immediate response. Then there’s instant messaging: the name “instant” suggests the response time but presence is a valuable indicator – if my presence is “busy”, then I probably am. Try to contact me if you like but don’t be surprised if I ignore it until a better time. Finally, social networking: which is both a great aid to influencing others and to keeping abreast of developments but can also be what my wife would call a “time-Hoover” – so don’t even think that you can read every message – just dip in from time to time and join the conversation, then leave again.

Ultimately, neither of these proposals will be successful without cultural change. This issue is not unique to any one company but the only way I can think of to change the actions and/or thoughts of others is to lead by example… starting today, I think I might give them a try.

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

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