Friday, February 17, 2012

No thanks. Thank you.

Being the nice, polite middle-class boy that I am, I was brought up on the principle that courtesy costs nothing, and that I should always mind my Ps and Qs.

Now I'm in my 40s, and mandated by gender predetermination to be in a semi-permanent state of curmudgeon, I have found that "Thanks!" is not always the catch-all of polite appreciation.

As an employee of a large company I have discovered that there is one situation where such gratitude expressed will actually have me pulling upon the red handle marked FOR USE ONLY IN MOMENTS OF MIDDLE-AGED RAGE. I refer to the practice of using the 'Reply All' e-mail button to say, to just a single person (but copied to a cast of millions - including me) "Thanks!".

Being cc'd on an e-mail from one person to another is rarely more than attempted indemnification: "I've copied him/her, therefore he/she can consider themselves informed/looped in/involved". However, when the e-mail only says "Thanks!", the copied recipient has merely become a spectator of the most irrelevant, inconsequential and pointless of declarations. In terms of likelihood to raise one's duster in the workplace, it is beaten only by having to listen to the loud end of someone else's phone conversation. Which is a rant to unleash another time.

E-mail has, however, replaced conversation in many working environments. Few of us office drones will have escaped receiving an e-mail from someone sitting just three feet away or on the other side of a very thin wall. And, worse, when you're on the periphery of a lengthy e-mail exchange between an entire group of people, you end up wondering why that those expensive meeting rooms with video conferencing facilities had been installed, as your inbox fills up with patience-sapping, life's too short-reminding back-and-forthery.

E-mail is too convenient, and in the era of the BlackBerry dispatches are tossed off with careless abandon, at all times of the day or night. How different from the days of "Take a letter, Miss Jones".

With this ease comes the volume: last year the Internet handled almost 110 trillion e-mails. Many of them ended up in my Inbox, it would appear.

Unlike the kitchen pedal bin, which only informs you it has reached capacity when you bother to investigate that unplaceable odor wafting through the house, the message “YOUR MAILBOX IS ALMOST FULL” is a more terrifying warning of impending doom for the desk warrior reliant on an active communications pipeline. But imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to have this digital umbilical removed. Imagine having to actually, you know, talk to people, face-to-face, in the same room...

A few years ago Scottish researchers found that over a third of workers had become stressed by the daily volume of incoming e-mail and, worse, by the obligation to respond to it.

They felt that e-mail had become a distraction, that they were checking their Inbox 30 or 40 times an hour for new arrivals. That study took place five years ago, when ownership of smartphones was miniscule. Now, when even teenagers are hunched over BlackBerrys, no-doubt co-ordinating the next inner-city riot, e-mail is everywhere. Soon it will be impossible to go anywhere without e-mail catching up with you. There are cars in development that will offer you in-car e-mail, Facebook and Twitter (which will make for some pretty interesting insurance claims) and even fridges which will be able to say "You've got mail!" while also reminding you of the fact you're out of milk and houmous. So it has to stop. Or at least be curtailed.

To their absolute credit, several companies and their CEOs have taken initiatives to introduce an alternative e-mail culture in their organizations. Nine years ago, John Cauldwell, owner of the mobile phone retailer Phones4U took the radical step of banning staff from using e-mail altogether, arguing that his 2,500 staff were spending too much time handling e-mail and not enough time dealing with customers. "I saw that email was insidiously invading Phones4U so I banned it immediately," he said at the time. "Management and staff were beginning to show signs of being constrained by email proliferation - the ban brought an instant, dramatic and positive effect."

It's an idea that was picked up last year by London-based fashion PR agency Push, which banned any e-mail activity on Tuesdays to encourage account executives to use the phone more. Push didn't ban electronic communications altogether: in establishing Tuesdays as "T-Days", the agency ruled that staff could use only the telephone and Twitter (geddit?) to speak to journalists, clients and colleagues. Still, not a bad idea.

Last year Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos - a company which runs IT services for large corporations - picked up the Phones4U mantle by launching an 18-month program to eradicate internal e-mail altogether in a bid to achieve "best management practices". Breton's rationale was that only 10% of the 200 e-mails employees received on average every day had any use, which meant that the reading time associated with the other 90%, plus the minute or so it takes to return to work after looking at an e-mail of no great value, was time lost from more important activities.

As with any technological advance, e-mail has it's place. But as a working tool, it has its drawbacks. When more and more people admit to checking their work e-mail while on holiday for no other reason than to reduce the pileup of unread messages when they return to the office, something is clearly amiss. 25 years ago would you have gone into the office every day during Christmas to check for unopened letters or faxes? Of course not.

Other tools are out there which do the job of e-mail just as well: Atos, for example, is replacing e-mail with a combination of a Facebook-style social network and the dear old telephone.

In other companies, Twitter-like applications have been developed, which have the added advantage of encouraging workers to be brief. Given that time is, arguably, the most precious commodity we all have, a carefully crafted 140-character message instead of a lengthy, stream-of-conscious braindump sent to one and cc'd to several hundred more would not only get to the point, but would be the kindest act of humanity one worker could do for another.

And speaking of humanity, let me leave you with this thought: a single e-mail has a carbon footprint of 0.04g, and an e-mail with a PowerPoint presentation attached to it weighs in at 0.4g of CO2. Worth remembering that, next time you e-mail the colleague sat opposite you...

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