Breakingviews - Review: “A World Without Email” is a long way off

A person types on a laptop computer in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 11, 2020.

MILAN (Reuters Breakingviews) - When email went mainstream in the 1990s, it seemed a brilliant idea. Simple and practical services like Microsoft Outlook or Yahoo Mail freed office workers from the need to send written memos by post or chase colleagues and clients by phone. Three decades on, we now spend on average more than three hours of our working day tending to electronic messages, according to a 2018 consumer survey by Adobe. The flood of emails is making us miserable and less productive.

In “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload”, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport does a good job of exposing the daily curse of inbox overload. Emails sent and received worldwide are expected to reach 320 billion in 2021, up from 306 billion last year, according to Statista. Confronted with an unstoppable torrent of electronic messages, white-collar workers spend large parts of their day neurotically opening their inboxes. Researchers from the University of California found that these workers checked messages on average 77 times a day. Heavy email users might hit the “refresh” button as often as 400 times.

The urge to check emails, often induced by a fear of missing important messages or deadlines, triggers a constant back and forth that forces us to frequently switch attention from whatever important work we were trying to accomplish. Like a digital version of Charlie Chaplin’s classic movie “Modern Times”, the human brain has an urge to check emails with greater frequency. Such disruptions, even when brief, “induce a heavy cost in terms of mental energy, reducing cognitive performance and creating a sense of exhaustion and reduced efficacy,” Newport argues.

Moreover, while emails can be useful for communicating across time zones or when the receiver is not present, the lack of real-time human interaction often causes misunderstandings and can lead to endless threads. “We often overestimate our correspondents’ ability to understand our messages,” says Newport. In the end, nothing beats an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. In its absence productivity and mental health suffers.

This problem appears to have got worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. With in-person meetings reduced to near zero because of office closures and travel restrictions, white-collar workers have become even more dependent on digital communication. Meanwhile, the boundaries between office hours and personal life have blurred further. Citigroup Chief Executive Jane Fraser this week acknowledged the need for mental space by awarding staff a company-wide holiday, while also banning video calls on Fridays.

Repelling the email assault is, however, more easily said than done. Newport spends half his book showing how smallish cutting-edge companies have tried to reinvent the way they communicate and collaborate, becoming more agile in the process. Some are ingenious. Virtual to-do lists provided by platforms like Trello or are useful hacks to regain control of one’s workflow. Such digital boards depict projects at various stages of development using colourful virtual cards or tags, often stacked in neatly arranged columns. They can be used at team level or individually.

Not all the approaches listed by Newport are equally practical: banning emails for specific periods of time, or compressing the working day to five uninterrupted hours, may be difficult to enforce for corporations operating in multiple time zones. While some startups are willing to experiment with new ways of communicating, large companies struggle to implement radical changes to their processes. Individuals lack the control over their working lives required to ignore bulging inboxes. And even if email communication is somehow tamed, smartphone notifications and ever more pervasive digital messaging platforms seem here to stay.

Email’s promise to improve our lives has been largely unfulfilled. Despite its many frustrations, though, we are stuck with it for a while longer.


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