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You’ve got mail…

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Is it possible that the ever-rising tide of emails with which so many of us struggle is about to ebb?

Well, I’m feeling kind of smug this week.  Not because I’ve made it through another holiday season with no major family arguments and not because I’m still keeping up with my New Year’s Resolutions.  No, I’m feeling that special smugness that comes with the feeling that I might have been right all along.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that one of my soap-boxes, which is periodically dragged out when I feel in the need for a good rant, is email.  Email is both a blessing and a curse and I loathe it as much as I love it.  It makes keeping in touch so much easier but it also results in many workers feeling swamped.  When running time management workshops, which is when the subject comes up most often, I always remind delegates that their job is not handling email but that’s an easy thing to say and a much harder thing to believe.

I would suggest various, basic, techniques to control email: the use of filters, turning off alarms, changing the send/receive frequency - even, heaven forfend, turning the damned thing off occasionally and picking up the phone.  Delegates would respond to these suggestions with a mixture of amusement and dread.  And while those techniques might help us keep our heads above water briefly, they didn’t do much to stem the never-ending flood of bits and bytes.  Over the last few years, we have taught ourselves that email is a force of nature, like the tides or the wind.  We cannot do anything about it, we told ourselves; we just have to cope as best we can.  And if once in a while the tide turned into a tsunami or the wind turned into a hurricane, well it just couldn’t be helped.  We tidied up the wreckage and got on with life as best we could.

Combine this tide of email with the proliferation of mobile devices and increasingly the lines between “work” and “home” became blurred.   Delegates would regularly talk about catching up with emails at the weekend, in bed, on holidays. Blackberrys became an essential part of holiday packing; articles in management magazines talk about the difference between “soft’ holidays (where you check your email regularly) and “hard” holidays (where you are genuinely incommunicado).  The “always on” culture spread to human beings and it was - and is - toxic and unsustainable.

But, whisper it do, that may be about to change.  Car manufacturer Volkswagen announced that it would be turning off work emails outside of its German workers’ contracted flexitime hours.  French online retailer Atos have announced that they will phase out internal email entirely by 2014.  The manufacturers of Persil announced an “email amnesty” for their workers between Christmas and New Year.  Straws in the wind, perhaps...?

There is nothing wrong with email.  There is nothing wrong with writing/sending emails at 11 o’clock at night or any other time - if that is what you choose to do and it’s convenient for you.  And if you don’t expect the person you’re emailing to respond immediately.  The problem is that people often feel forced to deal with emails and, as a tool, it’s been used poorly and ineffectively.  Businesses are beginning to wake up to this fact, it appears - and that can only be a good thing for workers.  Reason for us all to feel a little happier and optimistic as January wears on.

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