What’s the biggest bar to productivity in the UK? The answer must be our most charmless of colleagues – Email. Not only has it failed to evolve for a generation, but to young employees it’s an increasingly alien medium. Let loose online by incompetent handlers, the email behemoth now runs amok. So why do we still nod, smile and live our lives unthinkingly through, by and on it?
Many of email’s flaws have become wearily accepted truisms. Though dispatched worldwide by mere fingerflick, it remains a deceptively arduous medium. What should be a simple conversation becomes a laborious to-and-fro of reading, typing, sending, receiving, rephrasing, resending and wondering what you’ve done to deserve all this. The invitation for immediate response obstructs careful thought, thwarting those who’d prefer to plan beyond the next few hours. Worse still, congratulate yourself on answering a message within the minute, and your likely reward is to receive a subsequent salvo 30 seconds later.
Email inboxes fetishise new arrivals: a quick flurry of chaff, crudely stamped with evasive subject-lines, bumps unknowably important emails off-screen. Once off radar, only the most virtuous and industrious will dig them out again; much more seductive is the ‘mark all read’ button, dissolving known unknowns into guilty oblivion.
Nevertheless, the tech-wonks proclaim that some 300 billion emails are sent daily. Even if most traffic is machine-generated dross, this still amounts to 75 emails hitting every human in the firing line. Thus much of the modern working day is email-sifting drudgery: your actual job only gets a look in when a window for undisturbed thought emerges.
What’s more, social media and messaging apps have usurped email’s crown. Four out of five Britons aged 18 to 24 use WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat; nine out of ten Facebook Messenger. Nor is this just a ‘Generation Z’ phenomenon: 58 per cent of UK internet users now use WhatsApp, three fifths every day. These free-wheeling tools provide the context for contemporary conversation, not email. Beyond acquiring an address to register an online profile, or complain to Izzy from customer services, email is for millions of young folk merely a receptacle for blogs and marketing. Many teenagers wouldn’t dream of suggesting a personal email address for informal contact.
Yet neither schools nor employers are teaching workers how to live with the daily grind of life through email. Take the prodigious problem of tone. I’m not talking about the niceties of etiquette and address, grammar and punctuation, but about clarity, which in any email is elusive: inevitably, words are mistaken, jokes misfire, and wrong inferences abound. These problems can’t be quashed by the dread army of emoji.
So why, after 40 years of stubborn inadequacy, do we still venerate email as the digital successor to letter and phone? At least the effort required to write and dispatch a letter into the world helps stymy pointless or stupid messages: no-one troubles the postman with one-line questions per litt. What’s more, the possibility that letters may sit for a week unopened, and a further fortnight unanswered, compels each to carry some real heft and purpose. Nor is there any detached and dishonest way to dispense with unread letters piled on the desk – other than the bin. As for the phone, questions can be posed and answered simultaneously. A live exchange – or conversation, if you will – readily ensues. Both beat passive-aggressive email chains in both pace and pleasure.
So what to do? It would, of course, be absurdly neo-Luddite to forego email as a medium. We’re in too deep – and its convenience is excellent in small doses. But convenience kills quality, and we’ve long passed the sweetspot of optimal communication.
Instead, we could start by killing off the unnecessary email. If you need to exchange ideas in real-time, pick up the phone, meet in person, or use an online cloud-based site, like Slack. If this seems too iconoclastic, perhaps a penny tax on every email sent would help focus the mind – especially if we employees footed the bill? Any cash saved could pay for installing top-notch video-conferencing software.
Many emails lose all value soon after they’re sent. So why not allow the sender to delete outmoded and unread emails from others’ inboxes, once the conversation and events have moved on? Maybe more businesses and institutions could think about extending email curfews, which at least circumscribe the problem within office hours, to email quotas? If you’re allowed to fire off only 50 emails a day, each one will be sent in earnest.
Once you’ve maxed out, try lifting a phone: if it doesn’t seem worth the effort then what you have to say probably isn’t worth an email anyway. Until we all realise that we’ve come to accept daily office spam as prime fillet, our Augean inboxes will never be purged.