When it comes to office boredom, I would have thought there was little more to say about the exhausting, inexhaustible cockroach of the Internet that is business email.
I found out there was last week, when a friend at work told me how happy her 10-year-old was to have his first email account.
“He gets incredibly excited whenever a new email hits his inbox,” she said. Most came from her or his teacher, but he counted them when they arrived and had just announced he had 175.
As I took in the harrowing thought of how quickly his joy would turn to terror in the face of the groaning overload of the inbox, my friend said, “Guess how many emails I have.” Unread.”
“100,000?” I said she would certainly have less than my own 120,000. “No,” she said. “300,000.” When I mentioned this to a colleague at work, he said it was nothing because he had over 500,000. Assuming journalists were at particular risk of flooding, I asked an investor I saw the next day how many unread emails she had. “More than 400,000,” she said, shuddering.
Like the rest of us, she had given up fighting a relentless digital bombardment. As a senior member of her firm, she was copied into endless internal clutter, as unwanted external bilge poured in from all sorts of marketers, promoters, and pitchers.
When I mentioned this to another co-worker last week, he said he was thinking about doing something I’ve been thinking about myself: setting up a permanent out of office message to warn that the deluge of email might prevent me from replying soon .
And this is just email, which American employees over looked at three hours a day in 2019. Add to that the non-stop pings from Slack, Teams, G-chat or WhatsApp, and it’s a miracle anyone ever gets anything important done.
Some messages are necessary, of course, as are some of the online meetings and phone calls that have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. But we’ve reached the point where the benefits of communication are outweighed by a daunting loss of production.
This was confirmed by a Microsoft report last month, employees around the world found they are struggling to keep up with a “crush of data, information and always-on communication”.
The study found that people spend 57 percent of their workday on email, meetings, and other communications, but only 43 percent on productive creation.
According to Microsoft, a big investor in generative artificial intelligence, the solution to this dilemma is, unbelievably, artificial intelligence. The tech giant claims that AI will free stressed employees from time-consuming drudgery and unleash their creativity.
Maybe. But it will take much more than that.
For starters, employees need to stop thinking that the relentless advice on “productivity hacks” will help. You can do as much email filtering, subscription blocking and notification cessation as you want, but it will never solve your overload problem because you are not causing it.
Rather, it stems from organizations applying layer upon layer of communication technologies without thinking about how it affects their broader goals – or the productivity and mental energy of their employees.
I have come across very few companies quite like GitLab, a software company with detailed guidelines about when to use email, Slack, or something else for different tasks.
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It did this out of necessity: it has long had to corral a large remote workforce. But its efforts to prevent what it calls “the chaotic fragmentation of communications” that devils larger organizations are widely applicable.
It is encouraging to see a company like Germany’s VW trying measures such as disabling access to emails outside normal working hours, even if they are difficult to implement in practice.
I also like the move by the German car company Daimler to enable employees to use those settings automatically to delete incoming emails while on vacation. The proliferation of the right to disconnect, limiting work contact outside office hours, is also welcome.
But it’s the way we work in hours that needs attention. Until that’s sorted out, we’re doomed to endure office life that will always be a gritty, frustrating shadow of what it could be.