Simon Terry

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The Wrong Place to Start

Email is not the place to start. Stop hanging the case for the future of work all only on email. Meetings are a far better place for changing work behaviours.

Email is Bad But It Isn’t Going Soon

The way email is used in business now is terrible and mostly unnecessary. Many people have demonstrated that there are better ways to manage than email. Luis Suarez has has demonstrated his ‘no email’ approach to work that it is both possible to remove email and more effective. However, his example is unlikely to be widely followed soon.

Email practices continue and are tolerated by organisations and workers.  It is hard to see email disappearing because email meets some simple work that remain in the culture of most workplaces. These practices relate largely to the way organisations manage accountability and tasks. We might not endorse the following practices for many reasons but they aren’t going away until we first change the accountability and performance cultures in our organizations:

  • Expectation of delivery (though not of reading or understanding or action)
  • Allocation of responsibility to others (though usually badly or for the wrong reasons)
  • A production line experience to create the satisfaction of a sense of work and the distraction of the new (not always a positive and a source of much of the overwhelming feeling of email)
  • A form of authentication, confirmation or notice (also subject to abuse and the target of many hacking schemes)
  • A low-touch asynchronous form of interaction that does not necessarily demand attention or a response (not always an ideal interaction pattern to choose)

We can keep up the fight to improve email practices, but it is holding change back to make the change in email practices the starting point for new ways of working.

Start Fixing Meetings Instead

We spend hours a day doing pointless email, but mostly we do email alone.  Even greater productive potential is wasted in bad meetings. Every diary has them. Many people live in back to back meetings with no time for preparation, reflection or more importantly action. Worse still, their presence in those meetings traps others into feeling like they need to attend too.

We can rebuild the meeting culture of an organisation quickly and with the active support of workers. Aaron Dignan has described the value of starting with a clean slate in building a new organizational tempo around meetings.  We can use the chats, conversations and collaborations concepts to rethink the purposes and work of our meetings and choose better tools to manage those interactions instead. Even a little exposure to better formats of meetings and better tools for interactions is likely to generate converts and a groundswell of support as people feel more productive, have better interactions and importantly gain back time.

Many of the bad habits that drive use of email above are driven by ineffective conversations in organizations.  They are created by bad meetings that don’t achieve anything or advance the work of the organizations.  Bad meetings leave the inevitable conflicts of performance to seethe and remain unresolved. You don’t need ‘CYA’ emails when the meetings and interactions of the organization are working effectively, you are working and managing tasks transparently and when the focus of performance is on accountability to achieve purpose.

The email culture of organisations will change in time. We can each work to improve our individual email practices.  If we want to show the collective benefits of new work practices, start by changing meetings.


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