Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

How To Fix Email, With Science!

Emails are not liked by anyone. While we also have Slack and Teams, we have yet to let go of this broken piece of the modern world. A pair of researchers, however, have discovered a simple method for decreasing inbox dread: returning to email’s asynchronous roots.

Half of us reply within an hour to emails. We believe we should respond to emails immediately. So we answer too many messages outside of our regular work hours or when we’re in the middle of actual work. As a consequence, we all receive too many emails, spending more than a quarter of our workday checking them.

The researchers at the London Business School and Cornell University ran eight studies to come up with their conclusion: stop treating email like Slack.

Among the benefits of email is that it is flexible, allows people outside of your company to collaborate, and is asynchronous, so the receiver and sender don’t have to be online at the same time. “We have turned the advantage into a disadvantage,” Giurge says. “It is a channel of communication that should be used as an asynchronous medium of communication, but somehow we have used it as a constant medium of communication.”

Slack and other tools that use instant messaging may ask for immediate acknowledgment-even if it’s just an emoji or gif, as they’re typically used to perform work in parallel. In fact, it might be time to start treating email more like old-fashioned postal mail: When you receive a broadband bill from your ISP, you do not have to sign it to confirm receipt and indicate your intent to pay it; you just pay it when you can.

If everyone agrees, of course, and if the bosses have trained their employees to pay attention to new messages when they land in their inboxes, then it will work. As Bohns explains, email was designed to make life easier by allowing users to access their messages from anywhere. The pressure to respond quickly to our emails causes us to work everywhere, all the time.

Email accounts allow you to be both a sender and a receiver, so understanding others’ outlooks should be effortless, but we often overlook it. Bohns explains, “We lose sight of how it feels from the receiver’s perspective at that moment of sending,” as we become too focused on our own perspective.

When a message arrives in your inbox, that message is suddenly on your list of things to do. Senders may not even want a quick response — especially if they have work to do. We are concerned about being responsive because, as a receiver, you are sometimes concerned about other people’s expectations and what they may think if you don’t respond right away — that you don’t care, or that you don’t care for the message.

Bohns notes that burnout is on the rise among employees amid lockdown because fewer physical barriers keep them from working. “I can work anywhere during the day, it’s not like I leave the office,” she says. The fewer physical spaces where we have to work, the fewer safe places where we can not work.

It may be possible for some of us to resist that pressure and prevent yourself from responding to that notification ping. You may set specific times for checking your email. Some people can’t handle the pressure to always be available despite their best efforts. It is not up to recipients to change how they use email, but to senders. Previously, researchers have focused primarily on the person who holds the bias, the recipient who overestimates expectations. “Nevertheless, we found that by becoming aware of their email behaviour, senders who inadvertently violate those boundaries can control their email behaviour more easily.”

Senders, who are sensitive should do what? To help prevent your email from being answered out of hours, you may want to schedule emails to be sent at specific times. This, however, can cause problems, says Bohns. People seem to think that is the answer, to have everything on Monday morning at 9 am. If someone wants to get through a few messages on a Saturday to have an easier Monday, allow them to do that if they so desire. But that means a deluge of messages first thing in the morning, which ignores the fact that people work to their own schedules.

Adding the time it takes to reply to an email and your working hours as signatures is another good idea. Despite the fact that recipients can set response preferences, such as answering messages only at specific times, Guru warns it is easily ignored or missed. In this way, at least, expectations are set, and if the quicker response is needed, the sender knows to call or use the DM feature.

It is possible for managers to contribute to such a culture by adhering to such rules. Having bosses and team leaders email employees on a Friday night despite not requesting a response implies they must constantly be working, according to Bohns.

Perhaps a simpler solution would be to simply indicate your message is not urgent. Gurge recommends utilizing the subject line by clearly labelling an email “read this later” or “not urgent,” letting the recipient relax. “Simply indicate it is not an urgent response by adding a line to elaborate on the implicit expectations,” she says.

It is a good idea to label low priority messages similar to those that require immediate follow-up or are of high priority. Bohns points out that when things are urgent, we tend to put all caps and red exclamation points on them, but the green exclamation point indicates that something isn’t urgent, that it can be dealt with asynchronously at our convenience.

Is there ever a time when an email is marked as low priority? It is possible to do that in Outlook, but Gurge has never witnessed anyone using it, possibly because senders don’t want to suggest their work isn’t important. Despite being a bit hesitant, she explains, we are not protecting each other’s boundaries if we don’t do it.

It has never happened that Giurge has received an email labelled as low priority, but Bohns has — from Giurge herself. Bohns explains that while Laura says she does not receive low-priority emails, he does, the emails are coming from one person: Laura. “Everything she labels as non-urgent comes from her.”

Her emails are appreciated by those who receive them. “Some people have told me seeing the note has eased their minds,” Giurge says. On her side, Bohns agrees, saying it reduces pressure — though she confesses that she knows she won’t be invading other people’s time.

Stop calling for an email to be killed. We are the problem, not inboxes. Many people blame technology and recommend using less or no email, saying we are no longer responsible for the problems. But Bohns says this isn’t true. We just need to enhance the way we handle email.” “But it’s all about email and the way we interact with it.”

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store