07 Do the Math

Working in a hi-tech company is a gift for anyone wishing to learn about effective communication. It is not the kind of gift that imparts a warm fuzzy feeling but more like the gift of endless experiences that teach you things the hard way. And If this sounds like a rant, rest assured that I am its primary target. I’ve made numerous mistakes and hopefully corrected some of them before it was too late. One such misstep was how I managed communication with my team members. The short version: I was ignoring their emails. 

The longer version is a bit more complicated (as longer versions tend to be). Professionally, 2020 marked the dawn of a new era for me, my small team, and most office workers. Until then, we had all worked from our offices, a couple of steps away from one another, five days a week. Before 2020, I wouldn’t have needed to say that. That was how most of us worked. Sure, I had many colleagues and interfaces on other sites around the globe, but my team members — the people I worked closely with — were literally within shouting distance. Not that we ever shouted, but we could if we really wanted to. But with COVID and the move to work from home, calling across the hall was no longer an option. Nor was an unsolicited knock on the door. Without giving it much thought, the fallback seemed to be emails. And so it happened that every issue we needed to discuss, be it a question, a dilemma, or a new idea, was shooting across the ether into someone’s inbox. Soon, however, my team realized that emails sent over this virtual hall were a dead-end, at least when I was the recipient. 

I had the best intentions. With dozens of interfaces and remote work, I typically opened the morning with a long queue of new emails in my inbox, and from there, it just got worse during the day. It wasn’t my team flooding me with emails, but amid this endless stream of pings, I felt something had to give, and the choice was clear: Whatever someone from my team had sent could probably wait, if only because we have a weekly one-on-one meeting. At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Still, when I was asked why I hadn’t been responsive, I had to rationalize it, so I asked my team not to give up and keep sending me these emails; if I didn’t respond, we would surely discuss them in our weekly meeting. 

More than anything, this was an act of self-preservation. What seemed (and to many still seems) like a free and frictionless way to communicate has a grave cost. Think of a team of five people and a relatively quiet day where each of them sends you just one email, only that each of these emails can quickly evolve into a “conversation” — a back-and-forth exchange of questions, responses, and clarifications. Let’s say, on average, each such email evolves into a thread with five iterations. Five emails become five threads, which means 25 emails a day, just from your small team. This means an email every 20 minutes on average throughout the day. And that has a massive penalty. 

No matter how short your response is, it is a distraction. Unless you are blankly staring at your inbox, waiting for the next email (which you obviously are not), you have to make time to attend to it. If you wish to be genuinely responsive, you must stop whatever you are doing and switch tasks. Resuming the work you were immersed in before the email grabbed your attention takes time; gaining momentum is not trivial, especially if the next distraction is just around the corner. Attention is lost, productivity declines, creativity breaks, and (as a bonus) stress and frustration grow. 

If this sounds like a rant again, it is essential to note that the effect of constant distractions is backed up by research. Going back into a state of deep work following a distraction takes more than 20 minutes on average, and the side effects of stress and reduced motivation, productivity, and creativity follow soon after. I couldn’t ignore the emails from my manager or colleagues who expected me to respond ASAP. I had to give up on something, and I decided my team would bear the cost of me trying to keep my sanity. What’s the worst that could happen? The next one-on-one meeting is, at most, one week away. 

Unfortunately, our one-on-one meetings didn’t go as well as I had hoped. When the time came for the meeting with each of my team members, there had been so many unanswered emails in my inbox that we barely knew where to start. Some of the dilemmas pending my overdue response were already beyond urgent (unless someone took the initiative, called me, and kindly asked that I look at that email from a couple of days ago). We barely had time to squeeze in important, though non-urgent, topics, so we had to push them (optimistically) to the next meeting or agree to try to discuss them over email. Good luck with that! Most issues we did manage to discuss caught me unprepared as I heard about them for the first time in real-time during the meeting. Finding all the orphan emails before the meeting and guessing which were urgent didn’t even cross my mind as an option. And if, by any chance, I had something important to add to the agenda, the chances for talking about the things that my team members were concerned with became even smaller. Looking for an example of an effective meeting? This was not it. 

That is probably how I became allergic to statements like “We have too many meetings” and “We have way too many emails.” Both were true and untrue. Neither of these camps proposed a real solution; they just kept throwing the problem over the fence and relying blindly on a different means of communication. The “too many meetings” people wanted to replace meetings with emails and text messages. I didn’t want to attend to emails so frequently and with such urgency that I couldn’t do anything else. The “too many emails” people pushed for more meetings, but if meetings were to run the way my one-on-ones had, that wouldn’t have solved anything either. 

The problem was not in email as a platform or meetings as an idea; we simply failed to use these tools and methods correctly. We assumed one solution could solve all our problems, but this approach is rarely viable. After months of frustration, I realized I shouldn’t try to perfect one means of communication; I needed to think of a process combining the best parts of all available solutions.

Reflection and Practice

Pick a typical interaction you are part of: a recurrent meeting, a periodic email-based report, etc. Evaluate the accumulated impact of this interaction on the people involved, including the person who triggered it and all participants (even if some seem to be involved passively).

  • How much does this interaction cost in terms of the number of distractions?
  • How much does it cost in terms of work hours? 
  • Is the value of this interaction as currently managed worth the cost?.
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