Stress induced by unread messages is an undeniable part of modern inbox zero work culture. In a post covid hybrid/remote first world, the trinity of email, Slack and Zoom has become the default knee-jerk reaction for workplace interactions. The lack of physical presence has exacerbated the expected response time of asynchronous messages. While messaging apps are adding LLMs for auto generating responses in seconds, I am here to sing the praises of a book that wants to remove email altogether.
A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, was released right in the middle of the pandemic when remote work was at its peak worldwide. The key message of the book could not have been more timely:
What follows are some of my realizations in the process of incorporating the principles from the book. I became convinced that for building high performing teams for collaborative knowledge work, we need a culture shift. And that can happen only when organizational leadership commits to workflow design with empathy, instead of incessantly chasing work execution.
Knowledge work – The Workflow and Work Execution
The book’s central thesis revolves around the idea that there are two facets of knowledge work: workflow and work execution. The growth of white-collar jobs during the economic boom of the last century has led to a substantial portion of the workforce engaging in knowledge work. However, due to its intangible nature and rapid evolution, there has been a significant lag in the development of efficient workflow design. The lag was further impacted by the digital revolution, specifically the emergence of email and chat as ubiquitous communication tools. These technologies facilitated lightning-fast message delivery across the globe, resulting in widespread addiction under the guise of collaboration.
This short-sighted view on immediate results neglected the long-term consequences of email driven work culture. Computers and networks kept getting faster, but the human at the either end of a message did not. They jumped from one unfinished task to another, with an illusion of multitasking like the computer. Busyness became synonymous with productivity.
Cal’s manuscript was probably done before the pandemic, so there is no reference to work during lockdown, but we all know what happened. Our lack of preparation for pandemic led to a global spread of the deadly virus. Much like that, when the lack of efficient workflows met with an abrupt switch to remote work, it left the knowledge workers inundated by non-stop Zoom, Slack and emails.
Refocus on Workflow
Any task in a collaborative knowledge work environment goes through a set of state changes – inception, discovery, refinement, work in progress, execution, waiting for feedback, completion. Without a predetermined protocol, every task needs to establish the next steps to completion through unscheduled asynchronous messaging in the form of an email or an instant message. The book describes this chaotic state of collaborative work as the hyperactive hive mind which eats away the attention capital of the organization. The open loops of unfinished work linger long after designated work hours as people struggle to fall asleep while scrolling through unread messages on their phones.
Jira, Asana, Pivotal Tracker, Trello – there is no shortage of tools in this realm of ticket based workflow design. If you are already using one and not getting the benefit, ask the following questions:
- Is everyone in the collaboration ecosystem is onboard to using it?
- Are the list of tasks gets reviewed at regular intervals to evaluate progress against deadlines?
- When new work or uncertainty surfaces, is there a knee-jerk reaction of shooting an email/instant message or opening a ticket?
Transitioning from email to workflow tools in five steps
Take a step back and try to understand the complex patterns in your team’s work.
- Start with a prioritized queue of tasks needed to take an idea to completion
- Define the different states a task can be in. Start simple ToDo, Doing, Blocked, Done. Don’t over-engineer, stay between three and five.
- Have a predefined protocol that determines who does what at each state transition
- Have a shared view of who is working on what and which state the tasks are on
- All asynchronous communication for discovery, decisions clarification, execution, feedback etc. happen in the context of the task
Role of leadership
The role of leadership buyin is the linchpin here. Once they see that chasing the stream of consciousness from the hyperactive hive mind is not the best collaboration strategy, it becomes straightforward to establish a culture that translates work into meaningful actions within the framework of tools and processes.
Work Execution Modes – Specialist and Support
In typical knowledge work, contributors have the opportunity to deliver value in two distinct modes. The first is the specialist mode, in which they can immerse themselves in deep, solitary work. The second is the support mode, which involves engaging in collaborative problem-solving. When the support mode is neither scheduled nor governed by structured protocols, it can easily transform into a source of incessant distractions, thereby impeding the performance in the specialist mode. Meetings, whether in person or remote, are the bedrock of support mode and possibly is the second most hated artifact of collaborative knowledge work after emails.
In today’s hybrid work environment, it’s crucial that we foster a cultural shift towards empathy, avoiding unnecessary calendar clutter for our colleagues. It is inspiring to see some organizational leaders championing ‘meeting-free quiet days’. Yet there remains ample room for improvement. Hopefully in the future, calendars will not only check for common availability, but also factor in the priorities of their deliverables and the cognitive burden of the employees to avoid burn out. Till then, here are some pragmatic approaches to calendar management.
Proactively providing designated time during the week as collaboration hours cuts down adhoc exchange of messages for agreeing to a meeting time. Anybody seeking your time for any collaborative work like knowledge sharing, discovery, troubleshooting etc, can use these slots. Outlook, Calendly, Gmail all provide options for booking time and even encourage putting them in your mail signature/chat client status.
In software teams, a common practice is to conduct a daily standup meeting. During this meeting, team members take turns summarizing their accomplishments from the previous day, setting objectives for the current day, and addressing any obstacles they may face. When conducted with the right mindset, this can be the most effective meeting a team can have.
These meetings are called ‘standups’ deliberately to keep them short. If a standup involves more than six-seven people or takes longer than ten-fifteen minutes, it has likely become unproductive. Any other topic otherwise is discussed in a ‘parking lot,’ where only needed team members break out to address specific obstacles, streamlining the main meeting.
Ad Hoc meetings
While the above methods significantly reduce the necessity for impromptu meetings, they cannot entirely eliminate them. Structure the agenda as a list of questions on a shared document, each with possible solutions, and convert meetings to decision-making process. The outcome of the meeting are action items for designated team members with deadlines which should get reflected/tracked on the workflow tool described above.
While that utopian day of the world without email is still far out. Personally, beyond the rules for auto-deleting and auto-archiving, those email that contain information but need no actions I manually push then to my Projects/Areas/Resources/Archives folders in my second brain using OneNote and Outlook integration. I never touch them again in Outlook, but progressively summarize them in batches.
Emails that need actions I forward them to Jira, using email to jira integration. Those that absolutely need replies, I try to shut down those threads completely with super short replies containing hyperlinks to jira tickets, wiki pages, shared documents with checklists and instructions. It is a game – if email replies exceed five sentences, I reevaluate what more can be done to liberate the task out of email entrapment. To reduce slack messages, I’ve been experimenting with Canvas where we keep a list of open items to be reviewed during scheduled meetings rather than defaulting to adhoc pings.
Email’s impact on the workplace was not additive; it radically transformed the very fabric of knowledge work and our professional lives. In the wake of the pandemic hangover, our society finds itself grappling with the cognitive load of increased digital communication, all while navigating the pressure of return to office. Let’s be more intentional than adhoc to build a future where the distraction of unread messages, or the anxiety of their accumulation, no longer dictates our capacity to deliver our highest quality work.