The drudgery of e-mail

A little while ago I was confronted with a very peculiar remark. “In the office you don’t have your email client open all the time like the rest of your co-workers”. When I heard the sentence I had to turn it over in my head a couple of times. My initial reaction was one of defence. Like somehow I had been scolded or that there had been a vague insinuation that I wasn’t working as hard as my co-workers because I did not spend all of my time in my email client. But as I sat down in the car for the drive home, I mulled the request over in my head over and over again, and came to the conclusion that it was absolutely absurd.

Not the remark itself of course. It was a valid comment to make. When somebody deviates from the norm he stands out and his behaviour is noticed by the rest of the group. That is a matter of common group dynamics. What, after some philosophical pondering, did surface, was the absurd realisation that “Email” is considered a valid form of occupation these days. The more mails you answer , the harder you work. Somehow, in the crazy group mind of the cubicle work bees , the quantity of communication has become the norm of productivity… not the quality of that communication.

We try to find meaning in this new landscape where we no longer produce anything tangible.

Where does this bizarre mindset come from ? If we take a look at our modern history, the roots of this way of thinking can be found in the industrial revolution. Back then workers had to come to the factory and produce X amount of goods in order to meet their quota. As you where sowing together ladies cosets or smashed a piece of raw iron into the shape of a bolt beneath a giant weld… the more pieces you churned out the harder you worked. But those days have come and gone and still their echo remains. As we march towards our office building and sit inside the cubicles of our “conveyor belt of ideas” we try to find meaning in this new landscape where we no longer produce anything tangible. “I’ve been running around all day long and it feels like I didn’t get anything done today”. I take it that all of us (including you AND your boss) have murmured this sentence to their beloved at some occasion. It is a symptom of the fact that our technology has changed our way of working at a pace that our brain cannot keep up. And i’m not talking about the pace of life or the speed at which we interact. I’m talking about the fact that we are no longer sowing together corsets but are ‘welding together’ abstract procedures, ideas or workflows that no longer give us anything tangible to show for at the end of the day. So the human mind goes in search of patterns it recognises in this new factory of thoughts. “Numbers of meetings attended” , “Number of calls received”, “I got 14 voicemails today”. “Look at the 45 business cards I got from the conference” “Today I had over 150 emails to get through”. Everywhere we can, we try to count ‘quantities’ of work, to give us hold on this completely abstract work environment.

So how many emails does it take to be a good office drone ? It’s a valid question. Back in the 1900’s your foreman gave you a quota to meet : 500 bolts by the end of the day. And that would be something you could ‘DO’… You could ‘Make’ the bolts, “Count” the bolts and SHOW your foreman the bolts at the end of the day. Life was easy. You know when you were behind and had to speed up, you knew when you were ahead and could slack off a little… But these days its not like that anymore. But if quantity of emails processed is “the new bolt” , I challenge you to step up to your manager and ask for that quota. “How many emails a day is the quota for a good office worker ?” The question is utterly absurd, but if we take a look at the way we still seem to “count” emails… its a valid question nonetheless.

There was a time where communication was a supportive process of the production process.

If we all want to meet our quota , where does it end ? Because you have to face it. If we all want to meet our virtual bolts quota we need to push out some emails… Don’t tap your co-worker on the shoulder, EMAIL him… even if he is right next to you. And please, put as many co-workers in the CC field as you can. Because the good thing about email is that you can not only “punch out your virtual bolt”, you can also share your hard labour with your co-workers to “keep them up to date”. In the process you send THEM virtual bolts to count… and on the end of the day we are just one big emailing swarm of office bee’s that have produced a 1000 virtual bolts… but didn’t get anything done. There was a time where communication was a supportive process of the production process. Somewhere along the line… communication has become a goal on its own.

And the one thing that makes me crack up when I think about this , are lines like : “I wanted to get so much done today , but all i did was trying to get through my emails” Its hilarious. Somehow handling mail has become more important then handling work. This can”t be right ? Can it ?

So, If you want to step away from the virtual “conveyer belt of bolts”… Try to reason with yourself the next time you want to hit send.

“Do I need to send out a message to the co-worker sitting next to me”: If he is within spitting, slapping, talking, shouting or walking range: DONT ! It will do both your debilitated physical condition and your deteriorating social skills some good to get the frack out of your seat and walk over.

“I’ll send him an email, otherwise he will forget”. Unless you are working in the Alzheimer office for terminal Alzheimer patients, there is a small but feasible chance that your co-workers ARE ABLE to remember stuff. Unless of course we write EVERYTHING down in an email and then SWAMP each other with emails… Yes… That will help. Perhaps its your personal visit to his or her office, or just the sweat staines your co-worker noticed on your shirt, that will MAKE them remember what you asked them.

“I need to cover my arse” Oh yea please ! Let’s all go office Gestapo on each other and by emailing every single detail, underline the fact that you trust absolutely no one at face value. The fact that YOU need to send out every critical (or non critical) event in an email, also says a lot about how trustworthy you feel about yourself. There are important things that need to be formally communicated, but for the love of god, lets not bury ourselves in more bureaucracy.

“Sorry, I don’t have the time, I have a lot of emails to get through”. That one happens to me too sometimes. But its bizarre ? Unless you work at a Russian spamming factory, “doing emails” is not your main task I hope.

To round it up, I can conclude with a simple logical deduction that even Spock would find enlightening. If we ALL spend less time doing email and more time just getting things done, we will get LESS email, and so E-spiral (that just sounds wrong , right ?) is broken for all of us.