E-mail was invented in the early 1970s as a means of accelerating communications through electronics. It only started to really hit the mainstream more than 20 years later. Of all the major technological developments in the last 50 years, email is without a doubt among those that have reshaped the nature of communications and work the most substantively.
Whereas once upon a time people sent handwritten notes and met in person, got on a call or if they really wanted to flex some technology went to the trouble to send a fax, today’s world of work is dominated, overwhelmingly and massively, by email. Many office jobs seem to consist almost entirely of being stuck to a screen, to get through emails.
I was reading a book the other day about an infamous educational administrator in the 1950s who, it was commented, “was rarely to be seen in his office”, this meaning that he was suspected of not doing his work. Nowadays, it’s the opposite, school leaders who are in their offices all the time are doing something wrong: they should be out and about, walking the corridors, dropping in to catch up with people, socialising and taking in the ambient culture. This is true, but when do they answer the dreaded emails that are piling up irrepressibly in their inboxes while they enjoy some face-to-face social contact?
Perhaps the expectation is that they do this at night, or over the weekend, or during public holidays, or in the small hours of the morning?
And of course, strolling through an organisation can lead to you being caught by a glare and the ominous statement: “did you get my email?”
Then there’s email addiction. The worst example is in meetings when people are reading their emails while someone else is speaking, only stopping when they have to give their own presentations to the person who was speaking earlier but is now reading their emails. Why are people online more important than those right in front of you? If you chair meetings and people are talking, make sure the others close their laptops. I call it “sharking” the laptops: “shark’em please!” It really is intolerable to give a presentation to an audience that is not looking at you.
A friend of mine once said that there is only one way to answer emails, it’s one by one as they come. I tried this but found it quite difficult since some are clearly more important and pressing than others and some require research, multiple action points and cannot be answered on the fly. When I saw him at a conference a few years later he had forgotten his earlier advice: now it was “I try to answer the important ones, and once in a while, to impress people, I’ll answer right away!” he said.
It feels a little like fighting a losing battle, or Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill to see it go all the way back down again. Like the Nine Headed Hydra, if you answer one mail, another will grow in its place. You can’t win against emails, they creep up on you as Birnam wood comes to Macbeth, in a slow but unstoppable march: a moving forest of messages coming to get you. You wake up in a cold sweat, you were having a nightmare. To get to sleep you answer a few emails but before you know it it’s time to go to work, where more will be waiting for you.
Teachers and students, people whose time is made up primarily of face-to-face contact, receive emails too. The more of them that pile up in their inboxes, the more difficult it is to find what little time there is left on either side of a full day to answer them.
The incessant flow of emails, the fact that they can be written so easily and fired off at all times of the day has meant, quite simply, that work has increased enormously, to bursting point. But has it become more meaningful?
What to do? I think there is only one solution: each of us has to practise it, individually: be kind when thinking about sending an email. As I’ve seen in some people’s email signatories, “do you really need to send this?”