Email My Friend, You Have Led Me Astray

(I dont typically blog about topics like this, but I feel guilty that I”m not responding to emails fast enough so I wanted to get this off my chest.)

We still don’t seem to have figured out what to do about the broken email paradigm in business. I now work for a large company (over 300,000 employees) and I regularly receive over 300-400 emails each day. And yes, almost half of them are directly addressed to me.

For many years I dealt with all this through an amazing tool called X1 (the fastest indexing engine I’ve found), but even now this doesnt help. I now spend many hours a day monitoring the email traffic (yes it’s like monitoring flight traffic), I set my inbox to only one line (so I can see them come in faster), and I delete/respond as often as I have time.  At the end of the day I browse everything that came in that day and try to answer.  And I do NOT try to clean out my inbox.

My inbox now has over 14,000 emails, and its a nice place to store stuff. I just search when I need something, and sure enough there it is. (Unfortunately I run out of space regularly and have to delete the large ones.)

For those of you who send me emails and I don’t respond, believe me I am trying. If, by chance, your email went into Junk, I may see it every few weeks – so I really apologize.  I do want to reply, I really do.

To make things worse, I am now getting “messages”on LinkedIn and on Twitter and on Facebook.  So I now have three different “inboxes” to look at. I’m very conscientious and I do try to answer them all.  (And of course there are all the text messages too.)

And why has email suddenly become “real time?” There are many people in our firm that seem to respond immediately – and as much as I like the responsiveness, it often throws me off. I still think of email as a “store and forward” messaging medium, but maybe that’s because I’m old fashioned.

My History with Email

I”m older than many of you, so I started my career long before we had email. I worked for IBM in the early 1980s (before the PC was launched) and there was an amazing mainframe system someone hacked up called PROFS. PROFS had email, and at IBM in those days (these were green screen character terminals) PROFS turned into a transformational tool. Suddenly everyone in IBM could reach everyone else, and we had a real “network” start to build.

We never wasted time with it, probably checked it once or twice a day, and there were no attachments. But it was a great way to find someone and get answers to a question.

Of course along came the PC, and then Outlook, and then attachments, and then .. well here we are.

Over all these years I’ve seen all the various tricks and rules.  Don’t send emails on weekends. Don’t “reply all.” Don’t send an email without a clear subject line. Don’t put more than one person on the “to” address. Don’t send long emails (I disagree with this one). Don’t mis-spell or use caps. Don’t send emails when you’re drunk (you’ll regret it later). And of course, don’t send “secure” email outside the company.

Well I’ve dealt with all that for about 30 years or so, and I have to say right now this is out of control. I always dealt with it well, but now I find myself up at 5:30 in the morning dealing with the 50+ emails that came in the night before. And being part of a big, very busy company, I feel obligated to respond to my partners on a fairly timely basis.

What’s Next:  Messaging Everywhere

It’s interesting how “messaging” seems to be the killer app all of a sudden.

  • WeChat, the biggest messaging platform in China, is now becoming overloaded. I watched people using WeChat when I was in China and I was amazed – people are glued to it.  (more than 600 million users)
  • SnapChat is amazing (it’s really video messaging), and my kids are experts. I can see us having “real time video” chats all day.
  • Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Microsoft (Lync and Skype), IBM (Connections), Google (Hangouts), and dozens of other companies are jumping on this bandwagon.  Add Kik and a bunch of other cute ones.
  • Text Messages: c’mon. I love them, but now I get a lot from business contacts.  They get through, but they’re not scalable either. Twice this month people I work with sent me “I Love You” messages (inadvertently meant for their spouse)!  (I just responded “I love you too.”)
  • Slack, the company I have been fascinated to watch, seems to be making a dent in this issue. But today I read a great article on Medium (another site that is likely to add messaging) that even Slack is too noisy to be useful. Slack’s tagline is “Be Less Busy.” Great marketing, but I really don’t know if its true (we dont use it here).
  • And now we have the onslaught of ChatBots. These automatic response algorithms are supposed to make our life easier. Well I’m skeptical right now, but we will see.

Listen, I get it. If you’re a technology company, the best thing you can do to make money is drive up “user engagement.” In other words, make your tool addictive. If you get people addicted to it, you get lots of traffic and you can sell lots of advertising.

What To Do?

I don’t claim to have the answer, but I do have a lot of experience online, managing teams, and working in a highly dynamic environment. Here are a few things I’d recommend, and I cannot possibly predict the future.

First, be prepared for more messaging coming your way. Tell your people what you’ll use.  Our friends in the tech industry are not giving up, they’re trying even harder. There will be more and more messaging tools coming every day. You, as a business leader, have to “curate them” and tell your people what tool you are going to use, and simply ignore or abandon the others. It will make everyone more productive.

Focus on one or two systems for best results. I really don’t think you can be productive by communicating on everything. Tell your personal and business friends what email address and messaging address you will use. Buy an email client that can read emails from multiple sources and just collect them and respond from the one you want to use.

Don’t bother over-categorizing emails.  I personally think it’s probably a waste of time. My wife does this, but she has far fewer emails than me. The servers and indexing tools are so fast you can categorize in place. Use rules and other software to auto-categorize for you, if this turns you on.

Keep messages clear and short, and communicate on blogs. If you have something big to say, post it somewhere and link to it.  Sometimes a long internal email is great (ie. if you’re a leader and need to communicate a great message), but remember you’re taking a lot of someone’s time.

Dont’ respond too fast.  Make sure your responses to messages are clear. You don’t want to end up with a six-way back and forth because you weren’t clear the first time.

Spell and write carefully. Remember that your messages are a reflection of you. If they’re crummily written (is that a word?) it will reflect on you. And add a little humor, remember we’re all stressed out by all the “communications” we receive.

Make the subject line very clear. You may be able to describe/ask what you want there, saving lots of time.  Also if you have a question, make that clear too. And if someone is inviting you to a meeting or scheduling a call, take the time to get the dates right before you respond.

Use bullets or grids.  I find them fast and easy to read, and fast and easy to write. It helps you categorize your message and your thinking. My wife tells me every complex problem can be broken down into a grid. Think about that one.

Please don’t pile on. We have a funny behavior in our business unit – people have been sending “congratulations” emails to sales people and cc’ing the whole business unit.  I am happy for these wins too, but I am not enjoying the 17 emails I receive from everyone else saying “congrats!” You can be quietly happy and people will still respect you (and know you’re out there).

Remove people from the CC list. I get many emails with a lot of people copied. I often delete all the other names and just respond to the sender. It saves everyone time.

Don’t believe tool vendor claims. Despite all that new technology vendors tell you, messaging tools are personal. You have to decide which ones you want to use. I really wish Google Wave or Lotus Notes were still around (these were way ahead of their time). I have friends who still use AOL by the way, and I”m sure they use it because it’s familiar to them and they simply don’t want to clutter up their lives.

Reduce noise. The last piece of advice I have is simple:  try to reduce noise. Unsubscribe from everything you don’t read.  Read emails when you have time. Be sympathetic when someone doesn’t respond quickly. Be kind when you send a message. Always be polite. And try to realize that we’re all dealing with this onslaught, and each of us adapt in our own special way.

Pick up the phone! Finally, the most important of all. Pick up the phone and call the person when you have an issue. No email traffic or message will every replace a short phone call!

I personally am really watching all these tools, and believe that over time we will see much of this converge. But for now, we seem to be in a world of “ever-expanding” messages, so let’s do what we can to make each others’ lives a little better.

And I do promise to get back to you!