Email has the capacity to improve our
communication both in quality and pace. Yet evidence suggests that the tail is wagging the dog and email is driving people into substantial states of lower productivity.
A hundred years ago when the boat made its way from England carrying the mail, everyone dropped what they were doing to read the three-month-old news and information. The farmer in November anxiously opened the envelope to tell him what he got for his wool in London back in August. We have progressed considerably since then but everything is relative. If the farmer 100 years ago had stopped his shearing to read the mail about the three-month-old results it could have had disastrous effect on the sale of his wool in three months time — the delay could have meant the boat was missed. This analogy is alive and well with email today.
In the past, mail took preference over everything in the corporate environment, it was opened in the morning and there was always great interest and reaction to it. Fax machines put mail on the back burner. You actioned fax irrespective of the priorities. Email is more dramatic because it just arrives on the computer — usually accompanied by little ding to let you know you have new mail. And few can resist the temptation of reading. I’ve seen people with clients who hear the new mail signal on the computer, quietly divert one eye to the screen to find out who is mailing them.
What’s the solution?
The first thing is to recognise that this new phenomenon is simply communication tool. If it doesn’t help people get results by making things easier for them it’s of no real use. Like the telephone, faxes and letters we can’t let email punctuate our lives to the extent that activity takes over from productivity. The interruption of emails to our concentration and therefore productivity can be quite substantial, especially if we are getting lots of them. Depending on the complexity of task it may take one to 10 minutes before we reach our optimum brain plane. If we are working in an environment where we are being constantly interrupted by emails and we react to them when they come in, then job of higher priority that should take half an hour to complete could take two days. This is disaster.
Like any job or communication emails must be prioritised. There are some emails that are high priority and require relatively quick action but there are plenty that require no action or can wait few hours or days. Too often when there is an easy reply to the questions raised in the email, we drop everything else and respond. It makes us feel good because it’s another job off the list and we can trash the original request. I believe we should turn off the indicator ding on the computer. This way we won’t be aware of new email coming in. I would suggest we look at the screen twice day and prioritise responses.
For your information only — scrap it!
The trouble with computer technology is that it’s so easy to give everybody copy of everything and it’s great sense of power pushing the button realising that we are putting our message out live to 50 screens. But how much use is it to 48 of them? If all it does is break concentration like about 30 other low priority emails received that day then we are doing our colleagues no favours, we are just adding to their stress and reducing their effectiveness.
There’s still place for hand written notes, phone calls or personal visits. Don’t assume because it can be done by email that’s the best way to do it.
The teaching side of
I think it was Charles Handy who said the two things we never get any training for in life before we get thrust into the jobs are parenting and management. Maybe his remark is bit extravagant but the reality of his tongue-in-cheek thought often proves close to the truth. I can’t speak with any authority about the general population regarding parenting, apart from my own personal experience and Handy was right in my case. With management he is certainly right. We often ask groups of executives who have been given the job because of their skills in managing things eg. computers, accounting, marketing, engineering etc, what training did you have to achieve your technical prowess? The answer is always “plenty”. The engineer had spent five years at university, the computer expert was very involved for long time with courses, seminars etc and so it went on. It was the same case with every functional area. Yet paradoxically it was the opposite when we asked these managers what training they had had in the art of leading people. Mostly the answer was none or very little. Most had been told with incredibly short notice that they were now the manager and they would no longer be managing things but now the organisation’s most valuable asset “its people”. Surely this is real paradox and because of it some fail and some succeed.
All of us in management positions are responsible for ensuring that people grow through acquiring added knowledge and skills. Very often we are responsible for directly facilitating those skills. Sometimes we land up in front of group of colleagues making presentations to help enhance their skills. Sometimes it’s one-on-one coaching and sometimes it’s doing the analysis of needs and planning where to from there. Whichever part of this process we are talking about most of us have not had training to fulfil the responsibility. Yet it’s missed opportunity because teaching others is probably the most stimulating experience and opportunity for personal growth, real win-win situation is created. As well as learning and growing great deal ourselves, teaching often makes us very conscious of the fact that we better be talking our talk. There is nothing worse than the leader who takes the ‘do as I say, not as I do approach’.
Confuscious many years ago made that wise statement “I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand”. Creating learning environment like this certainly creates an understanding and action.
Reg Garters, Chief Executive NZIM Canterbury reflects on new time management problem and an old management application.