Secretly (and often, not so) working people loathe email. Our inboxes are stuffed with it and unless you set your computer to do otherwise (which I do) there’s a constant chirping of new inbound email distracting you from your work. To the point you’re actually less productive. Worse, email is a passive-aggressive way to offload liability. “Oh, well, I sent you an email,” is a common refrain when you inform a co-worker that you were unaware of this or that request. The dynamics of email are all wrong. Here’s why:
Say Person A, has a need or obligation. If they deal with it by sending an email, they are handing off the obligation to the person who they expect will handle it – Person B. Meanwhile Person B may or may not ever see that message because our inboxes are so overwhelmed that individual messages can disappear from sight, or memory, very easily – especially since we’re all email skimmers when the text gets to more than a few sentences.
So Person A, the one with the need, has offloaded liability for getting what they need to someone who they have not confirmed receipt of message from. It’s like two people talking on walkie-talkies with the “copy-that” call signal to confirm you actually did indeed get the message. Tick-tock, tick-tock, time passes and neither side knows that the other side doesn’t know that the communication failed. Not surprisingly by the time people figure it out, time has passed and the situation worsened.
When they first came out, I embraced tools like Basecamp as the future of workflow. So did companies with lots of bright minds, like Google and its Wave experiment. I think we children of the Digital Age all thought computers and the Internet could rescue us by providing immense efficiencies. No more could a ‘digital workspace’ rescue us from meetings and give us more free time than could digital media rescue us from printing. Offices burn through more paper now that they ever did before.
To be clear, I am not entirely anti-Basecamp. I think it has its utility, especially for geographically distributed work teams who need a common and simple-to-use place to store and access files. But – and this is a big but – Basecamp works very much against collaboration for the very same reason email lets us down. Posting files on Basecamp offloads responsibility from the person who has the need (to meet a deadline) to the person who doesn’t and assumes that the person who doesn’t will get the message. This assumption is a huge and important failing. The automated ‘reminders’ that hit our email boxes don’t solve this problem. They just create more inbox noise which increases the need to skim and the speed with which any one message is lost or forgotten in the avalanche.
The quality of the work suffers too.
Creativity warrants more than posting.
You cannot collaborate deeply and meaningfully over written text. The pace is too slow and the opportunity for misunderstanding too great. Email is notoriously hard to read. We’ve all sent what we thought was a nice email only to have someone come back pissed off because they read it wrong.
In a business like the one I’m in (marketing), where creativity and ideas come into play, the problem is exacerbated. Ideas take time and effort to birth. They are often fragile or at the least only partially-baked when they are introduced to other people for feedback. To put something that is a little vague around the edges and born of intuition onto a screen, without context or discussion, and offer it up for opinion is asking to have the work misunderstood.
There’s also the implied cheapening of the work. It takes the hard work of creativity and treats it like a notice being posted on a bulletin board.
Coming up in advertising, I was told by the old guys that when they presented work it was theatre. The work was mounted, put in leather cases, treated like gold. “These were our ideas” and they’d treat them like precious things. Mind you, those ideas were magic marker drawings on flimsy paper, yet they were still presented by a team in a very choreographed manner. Now the computer forces us to worry about fonts and palettes far to early in the process. It’s turned concepts into commodities that are often eclipsed by quarrels over typeface and the relative accuracy of a stock photo. Posting such work online without a meeting makes it even easier to overlook the concept and focus on the execution. Many good ideas die early because of this.
Maybe the pace of business today doesn’t allow for meetings the way it used to. Maybe too many years of meeting to plan meetings about meetings has turned us all off so much that we run away from the “M-word” reflexively. I believe we’ve lost something important along the way in this quest to move every aspect of our work onto the Internet. No doubt shared calendars and even shared notification boards have their place in an untethered and distributed workplace. And perhaps more straightforward, procedural work – like filling out forms or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, or even proofreading – can be done by just posting files back and forth. I am guessing though that the issues with missed messages and the offloading of responsibility pervade even with this more cut and dry work.
The argument that the likes of Basecamp save time is weak in my mind. Any time saved by posting something online instead of orchestrating a meeting is probably lost running around correcting misinterpretations, clarifying details or otherwise chasing down loose ends, missed connections and miscommunication.
So how to recapture workflow gone awry. I’ve started at the office by requesting meetings. Files are still put in Basecamp, but when I see some novel-length write up, I call across the office (I don’t email) and ask to meet. I tell my coworkers this will ensure I am closer to being on-target than if left to interpret it absent the conversation. And I think I am.
You may disagree. That’s great. Let’s talk about it.