When email was introduced in companies at the end of the 1980s, big promises were made: Less paper on desks, faster circulation of information and higher productivity.
When email was introduced in companies at the end of the 1980s, big promises were made: Less paper on desks, faster circulation of information and higher productivity. Natasha*, a wealth manager at Worth & Worthful, is too young to have been around in that era. What she knows, however, is that answering an email can take a long time.
It is Natasha’s second anniversary at Worth & Worthful where she had really flourished. To celebrate, she had asked Thomas, her new boyfriend, to a top restaurant in town. But for three days, her SMS invitation has remained unanswered. What could this silence mean? Natasha knew all too well that 90% of text messages are read within three minutes of being received. The expectation of instant responses had become a living hell in her private life and at work.
9:00 a.m.: Natasha arrived at the office, happy that it was her work anniversary and worried about Thomas' silence. In her excitement, she committed her first mistake – she started the day by opening her work inbox. The first message she read was from her boss asking for "a few minor clarifications" about a new law on property tax exemptions. In the boss’s jargon, "a few minor clarifications" meant an in-depth study, which would probably take several hours. Natasha added answering this email to her to-do list.
9:30 a.m.: Natasha did not fired off an immediate response to her boss. Neither has she done what he would have done (a habit that annoyed her immensely) and sent a pointless, time wasting acknowledgement saying “Thank you for your email which I have read and will deal with ASAP.” No, she decided to go through all her email and prioritize them along with everything else she had to do. It was a good call because she also received an email from one her of main clients, Mrs. Clarke, who had sent her a furious email the evening before, complaining about what she saw as bad advice. Natasha had to deal with that as an urgent matter.
10:00 a.m.: Mrs. Clarke telephoned, angry that she has not yet received Natasha's answer. Natasha used all her diplomatic skills to explain that she had carefully read her email but that she had to do some research before she could give her an accurate and full answer. Natasha was caught between two opposing needs: To provide a full answer or a quick answer.
11:30 a.m.: Natasha put together enough documentation to defend the advice she had given her client, while suggesting an improvement to the investment package she had recommended. She felt good that she had dealt with that, but as the morning ended, she understood she had not had time to work on her current work nor had she answered her boss's email. What's more, she needed Michele, her tax colleague, to provide more information on her boss’s request. She tried to call Michele but it went straight to voicemail, and as Worth & Worthful had no instant messaging, Natasha had no choice but to send her an email. She would have to wait for the answer. So much stress! But at least, caught up in the stresses of the day, Natasha hadn't had a minute to worry about Thomas' radio silence.
1:30 p.m.: Natasha decided to skip lunch and answer her boss's email instead. She could find the information she needed but progress was slow because of a succession of emails from colleagues, sometimes asking for a document, sometimes for information or just copying her on irrelevant email. This flood of email kept Natasha from answering her boss's email promptly. Too many emails kill an email’s effectiveness.
2:30 p.m.: After more than two hours of research, Natasha was finally able to press the "send" button on the reply to her boss. Her email was based on a series of links and documents gleaned from the Web. It was rich in content and Natasha hoped that her boss would not be upset with her about the length of time she had taken to respond, nor about the style of her email.
3:00 p.m.: Michele finally answered. She was part of a generation that took great care over the quality of their electronic correspondence. Her answer, which was quite lengthy, perfectly reflected Natasha's argument.
3:30 p.m.: Natasha had all the information needed to answer Mrs. Clarke's email. She had to pay attention to how she drafted her response. Spoken words fly away, written words remain. Her reply used appropriate words along with the deference a big client of a firm like Worth & Worthful would expect.
6:30 p.m.: Natasha had finished the first draft of her email to Mrs. Clarke. In view of its strategic nature, she had sent it to her boss for approval. He, in turn, had requested some modifications. After a small redraft, the email was finally approved and Natasha could send it. In total, Natasha had spent most of the day writing two important emails and, because of that, her other projects had not moved forward an inch.
6:45 p.m.: Natasha's mobile vibrated. Thomas had booked a table at the best restaurant in the area and would be expecting her at 7:30 p.m. to celebrate her work anniversary. In the end, modern communication tools are good, if you're patient.
More than thirty years after email technology arrived in businesses, it is still very poorly used. There is a greater need than ever for users to follow a robust netiquette such that writing an email does not replace actual work. The email is neither a conversation tool nor a management tool. An email message is not a piece of fine silverware that must be perfect before it can be sent, at least internally. It is just one of several communication tools which are there to help real projects progress.
*The names, people and businesses mentioned in this article are all fictional and any similarity to any person or organization is entirely coincidental.
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