Email is Eating Your Culture

Almost every day, a news story pops up about new forms of suffering for previously in-person teams that have been virtual for nearly a year. Despite well-meaning efforts to try to create informal connections (Zoom Happy Hours, Zoom Yoga, Zoom…Zoom…Zoom…), nothing is quite the same as “being there.” Perhaps that’s because computer cameras don’t just open up a visual portal, they open up a well of self-consciousness that further divides our already diminished attention. The listening we could once do quite well while doctoring our cups of coffee or tea has been replaced with half-hearted semi-attention that inevitably comes from staring at the same device for hours at a stretch while also managing our children’s learning, chastising our barking dogs and keyboard-walking cats, and trying not to catch SARS-CoV-2.

We all know this phenomenon quite well by now. But the effects of our strained attention and frayed nerves has further consequences for many of the things that we did regularly before the pandemic. Long before the majority of our interactions went virtual, a wealth of evidence suggested that email at work is a problem. As Cal Newport observes, people perceive email as an efficiency—even though it is often one of the biggest attention thieves in (and out of) a workplace. Moreover, because it is perceived as an efficiency, email can easily goad us into providing insufficient information (how many emails should it take to schedule a phone call?) and curt communication (Fwd: FYI, anyone?).

At a time when many people are experiencing maladaptive side effects of constant stress, an over-reliance on email can be especially damaging for individual mental health, strain relationships (both personal and professional) and even undermine employees’ ability to do their regular work. What is typically a frustrating but manageable aspect of work life in the era of carrying a computer in your pocket can balloon into an outright culture killer when your team is in front of their primary work device nearly all the time

Over the last six months, many of the executive teams we’ve worked with to build, strengthen or repair relationships among one another and their staff have shared that constant, low-grade stress of the pandemic has put a real strain on people’s interactions—often so much so that people hit explosive breaking points before they even realize how much stress they’re carrying. The challenge can be worse for those who already feel overwhelmed with bigger stressors, such as caring for a loved one, and don’t see a clear end in sight.

If four paragraphs decrying the damages of video and email communication increases your anxiety or drives you to pound your fist on your desk in demand of a better solution, take heart. There is a simple and surprisingly effective way out: pick up the phone

If you’re still with me, you may be thinking there is no way you can afford to take the time to call people every time you need to communicate with them. Your schedule is packed with Zoom meetings, and your workload is such that you have been taking advantage of the fact that you can’t sleep past 5 a.m. to get a jump on your emails. The fact is, you really cannot afford not to. Setting aside the disturbing average amount of time an employee spends on work-related email each day (3.5 hours!), overuse of email removes the opportunity to level with one another, check for understanding, hear the tone in one another\’s voice, and handle difficult conversations quickly rather than through a series of escalating asynchronous messages. Simply put, phone calls are better. Encourage your team to make more calls—and, one day, have more in-person conversations—and see interpersonal dynamics improve.

One last thing: some calls are hard to make. When you know you have to deliver bad news, when you worry about making the call’s recipient angry or sad, when you fear the conversation may be awkward—all of these can lead to procrastination. Help yourself and your team by setting aside time each day (early is often better) without other scheduled meetings so that people can call one other. Set the tone by making calls yourself. And if you can’t get over the lump in your throat to make that call, do what I do: call someone that you know will be a great conversation partner first. Chat for a few minutes with a friend or trusted colleague. Then use the good feelings they help create to ease you into your next call. And then keep the momentum going.