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Should we all just dump email?

20th November 2013


A few weeks ago Prof. Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for discovering the “God” particle. But, for journalists the job of tracking Higgs down was just as arduous as the original hunt for that tiny piece of matter. Higgs pretty much shuns the modern world – he only recently acquired a laptop, doesn’t really “do” email, and worked out the existence of a particle field that confers the universe with mass – using pencil and paper. And he doesn’t use email. Question is… why? In the early nineties, when email was at its infancy, it was one of the most sought after tools of communication. It was seen to be fast, direct, and immediate – an innovative bridge between different countries and time zones. Some of the top tech company heads, however, are making a transition and finding new ways of communicating with their internal staff. Luis Suares, Knowledge Manager at IBM, successfully reduced email usage five years ago, and found it de-cluttered his inbox by 98 per cent. He writes in his blog: “More than anything else, because it triggers an automated response of wanting to read and respond to those emails, it prohibits the creative side of the brain from kicking in to develop further ideas or to collaborate effectively with others”. Technical innovation, over the past decade or two, has seen many more communication pathways open up. While for many, email has become an albatross for productivity and creativity. Aleks Krotoski, BBC Radio 4 broadcaster, and Presenter of Digital Humans, has been wrestling with the idea for some time now, saying: “I have a policy that I look at email (usually!) at 5pm every day, and spend an hour tackling my inbox.” Aleks adds: “I have an out-of-office message that tells people this, and offers alternative contact options if they need to get my attention more urgently (phone, twitter). But generally, I find that dealing with email is distracting from the creative output that I need to do. That's why I relegate a specific time to doing it.” Similarly, for David Keane of Google, email is almost as out-moded as pen and paper: “Why do you need email? There’s so many different ways you could communicate,” he said, at the Social Media Week conference last week. “I personally apprise my workmates of the day’s events, and if it’s anything urgent, we use Google hangout or instant messenger. Working from a common document and a shared calendar helps,” he added. On the other hand, Gareth Davies, Head of StudioD, Waggener Edstrom, is reticent to the idea of transparency, and argues important stuff can’t be documented and privacy is scuppered, especially where essential. Meanwhile Luis Suares sees email as a tool for corporate bullying, delegating tasks and time wasting tactics that impinges on creativity: “I have seen plenty of email traffic that would be flagged as political, bullying, unnecessary reporting, delegated tasks on to you, and a whole bunch of other aspects that have clearly reminded me why I got started with ditching corporate email back in the day.” Psychologist, Henrietta Batchelor, agrees that the situation has been exacerbated with the advent of smartphone: “It’s almost like we are suffering from separation anxiety if we aren’t checking our inbox, similar to what we experience when we part with our children.” “This definitely interferes with our ability to concentrate,” she reiterated. The need to communicate via email is culturally and historically embedded in our office culture. As a result we unwittingly feel obliged to respond instantly. At times, this hinders our ability to finish an existing task. And who knows, perhaps, this is something Higgs was wary of much earlier on. As we continue to debate on whether email inhibits productivity and creativity, until we find a tool that is seamless, using email might be hard to refrain from. Who knows, like everything else, will email become obsolete in the not so distant future? Tweet your thoughts to @WE_UK. Charlene Rodrigues works as Broadcast Producer at Waggener Edstrom.

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