A (Post-Pandemic) World Without Email

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:

Unscheduled asynchronous messaging as the default backbone collaborative knowledge work is detrimental to the quality of output.

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

To gain something valuable like autonomy, you have to offer unambiguous value. You have to be accountable for what you produce, if you want the freedom to improve how you do so.

– Cal Newport

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.

Collaboration hours

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.

Other experiments

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.

The Third Meetup

Last Tuesday was our third meetup for Chuck Eesley’s venture-lab.org. Instead of the Michigan Street Starbucks opposite to The Chicago Tribune, we pivoted to the Wormhole for this one. For any geek who has been to this place, knows what a riot it is. From “Back to the Future” time-machine retro-fitted on the ceiling, old atari cartridges as showpieces on the coffee-table, super typo-friendly wifi password, stopwatch controlled brewing, Starwars puppets, shopkeep.com app on ipad instead of cashbox – the bearded coffee masters had it all. Everything except a place to accommodate the thunderous 8 of Lake Effect Ventures.

Two hours of caffeine drenched brainstorming spitted out the following:

  1. I sketched out how the process might flow in two steps.  We are down to a pretty bare minimum concept build which is ideal both for this class and for getting something up quickly so that we can test it.
  2. I set up a Twitter account for Lake Effect Ventures so that we can tweet about progress we are making.
  3. Andy is going to jot up a positioning statement and beef up the business model canvas for the concept
  4. Leandre will use these to complete our 2-slide initial submission for our deliverable for the next deadline
  5. Leandre will also use this to start to craft a presentation deck
  6. Benn will be working on the copy for the landing page that I started.
  7. Benn will also be crafting a logo in Photoshop (Alex, Zak, Sidi if any one of you is good with design Benn would appreciate the assistance there)
  8. We need to think of a name for the concept as well

We think it is a bit premature to start on the user stories right now given that we have a good idea of what we are gonna build. Charles and me are gonna start on that and look to have something complete from a Version 1.0 standpoint by mid next week barring no setbacks. We will look to craft the user stories once we complete the MVP and use them as structure for testing features and functionality (Zak stay tuned on this)
Benn and Andy will also be working on putting together a more formal customer survey so that we structure the interviews we are having and start to compile meaningful data which we will need going forward.
Its getting exciting ….

Advice:John Doerr on working in teams

Incredible Networking:  Collect names, emails of all folks you meet. Be very careful about who your friends and keep in touch – after all you become the average of the five people you spend your time with. Call them up – Its incredible what people will tell you over the phone. (This is something, I have always fallen short – I can hardly get beyond emails).

Carry Chessick, the founder and last CEO of restaurant.com once told me after his lecture session at UIC, that networking as it is perceived is worthless. When you meet people, make sure you finish off by saying “If I can be of any help to you, please do not hesitate to get in touch”. That’s the only way that business card will actually fetch you some benefit. I met a sales guy from SalesForce.com, some time back at Chicago Urban Geeks drink … who sent out a mail immediately after the introduction from his phone with a one line saying who he was, where we met, and that he’ll keep an eye on tech internship notices for me. Brilliant.

360-s: If you want to find information about some company, of course you Google. So lets say if you are gathering info about Google, you’ll also want to talk to their competitors Yahoo, Bing … and find what they are thinking. Then you triangulate all that information to get in a good position.

Coaching: Make sure there is some one will consistently give you advice on what’s going on in your workplace.

Mentoring: Having a very trusted person outside your work who can give advice is invaluable.

Time buddy: How do you make sure that you are doing good time management? Get a time buddy, compare your calendars on how you are spending time. Bill Gates does this Steve Balmer.

Another interesting practice I’ve read sometime back on Hackernews is communicating with team members in two short at regular intervals:
(1) What I did last week/day:
(2) What I’ll do next week/day:

As my dear friend Guru Devanla(https://github.com/gdevanla) would put it “Its all about setting expectations … and meeting them”!