Email…Huh…What Is It good For?

Yes, I am listening to The Temptations as I write this, but the question still stands. Email, what is it good for? Productivity? Staying connected? Having contributed to the term “work life balance”? Who is email really helping?

I spent three weeks in Italy this Spring. I’m returning this fall because (and I am going  to say this as politely as possible) my wife has a tiny temper and I pushed it a little too far on our last trip. Any men married to West Indian women totally understand what I am talking about right now. How did I push my wife too far? She spent 4 months planning this trip, finding the perfect houses for our family, the best deals on airfare & car rental & nailing everything down to a perfect T. I, in my vast wisdom, worked Monday to Friday 4pm to 2am for the three weeks. Why? Because I could. Because the emails never stopped & someone had to deal with them. It was either while on vacation or being overloaded when I returned home. People want their prices, their art, their signs. Day 13 she got angry, understandably so. In 7 years together we have never had a vacation without my working. Our honeymoon? She flew out & surprised me as I was away on business. Three trips to Turks & Caicos, I worked. Jamaica, I worked. Nova Scotia, I worked.

When she stopped cursing…After we spoke, she told me that she doesn’t blame me, she blames the new world order & the advent of email for my workaholic ways. My wife strongly believes that email has lowered productivity & is harming our culture as a whole. Her adamant stance on email has made me look at my habits. When I’m trying to get work done, an email will flash across my desktop with “URGENT”, take me away from what I’m doing & I may not remember where I was by the time I’m done dealing with “URGENT”. Or, and I think this happens to everyone, I’ve decided I’m done for the day, sit back and decide to check my social media & I get an email. I’m sitting there not doing anything, I may as well respond now instead of making someone wait.

What happened to waiting though? When did having to wait for an answer become the end of the world? Prior to email, we used to use phones. Why don’t we any more? Most times a 3 minute call can take the place of a dozen emails. Why when something is urgent do we send an email instead of pick up the phone? Science continuously shows us that multi-tasking is really only doing multiple tasks poorly as opposed to one well, so why are we continuing to strive for it? If email didn’t exist, would the phrase “work life balance” even exist? To be clear, I am guilty of all of the above problems.

My wife thankfully has a solution to the problem. A solution I am reticent to try, but one nonetheless. She thinks that everyone in every large organization should have an email policy in the same way professors have office hours. She wants me to allot 7am-9am, 12pm-1pm and 4:30pm to 5:30pm as email hours, including adding my email hours to my signature line. Anything outside of those hours and the sender needs to call me if it is actually urgent. It sounds like a solid plan, but I don’t think I’m ready to be a trailblazer.

There are benefits to email though. Timezones aren’t as important, virtual commuting is easier, there is better record keeping & the ability to have better organization among projects. Moderation seems to be key, but how do we actually get to a place of moderate email use? Some organizations and European countries are making it against the rules to email after hours. Does the that make the days of those individuals any easier, or do they just get more emails during business hours that take them away from their jobs?

While I mentally prepare myself for deleting my email account from my phone before our next trip, what do you think? Has email changed the workplace and our lives for the better or worse?

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