No one likes email. It’s a broken piece of the modern world that we’ve yet to ditch despite also now having to listen for the pings of Slack and Teams. But a pair of researchers have uncovered one simple technique for reducing inbox dread: return email to its asynchronous roots.
Most of us believe we need to respond to email immediately, and half of us respond within the hour. And that means too many of us answer messages during off-hours or when we’re mid-flow on actual work. That’s a problem, as we all get too many emails, spending more than a quarter of our work time on such messages.
Email is a valuable tool because it’s flexible, allows broad collaboration even with people outside your company, and it’s asynchronous, meaning the receiver and sender don’t need to both be online or working at the same time. “We’ve turned the advantages into disadvantages,” says Giurge. “It’s something that should be used as an asynchronous means of communication, and somehow we started using it as an ‘all the time’ means of communication.”
Instant messaging tools, such as Slack, may require an immediate acknowledgement—even if it’s just a GIF or thumbs up emoji—as they’re generally used as ways to collaborate on work at the same time. But it’s time to reconsider email more like old-fashioned paper mail: Upon receiving your broadband bill from your ISP, you don’t, after all, write a letter to confirm receipt and signal your intent to pay; you just pay it when you have a moment.
This only works if we all agree, of course, and bosses have trained their staff to jump to attention when a new message lands in their inbox. “Email was supposed to make our lives easier by allowing us to work from anywhere, anytime,” says Bohns. “Instead, we wind up working everywhere, all the time … because of the pressure we feel to respond quickly when we hear that ding in our email.”
Anyone with an email account is both a sender and a receiver, so understanding the perspective of others should be easy, but we often forget. “In that moment of sending, we are just so focused on our own perspective that we fail to remember what it feels like from the receiver’s perspective,” Bohns says.
A sender may not even want a quick response—not least if it means they have work to do—but when that message lands in your inbox, it’s suddenly on your to-do list. “As a receiver, you’re just so concerned with other people’s expectations, of what they might think if you don’t get back to them right away—that you’re not dedicated or don’t care or not paying attention—that we’re really concerned with being responsive,” says Giurge.
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That feeling has worsened during the pandemic, with fewer physical barriers to work, Bohns says, pointing to the rise of burnout among employees amid lockdown. “It’s not like I leave the office, work can come at any point throughout the day,” she says. “The less we’re bound to physical spaces to work, the less we have safe spaces where we don’t work.”
Some of us may have the mental strength to resist that pressure and that email notification ping, perhaps setting specific times to check email a handful of times each day. But not everyone can withstand the feeling we must always be available. Because of that, changing how we use email isn’t down to recipients, but senders. “A lot of the research before has focused on the person who holds the bias, the receivers who overestimate expectations,” says Giurge. “But what we found is that senders who are unintentionally violating those boundaries can become more aware of their email behavior.”
What should a sensitive sender do? You could manage when you send an email, making use of scheduling tools to try to prevent the recipient from answering out of hours. But that can backfire, says Bohns. “So many people think that’s a clear solution, just schedule everything for 9 am on Monday,” she says. But that means a stressful deluge of messages first thing in the morning, which doesn’t take into account people working to their own schedules—if someone wants to get through a few messages on a Saturday to have an easier Monday, let them make their own mind up.
Another idea is to acknowledge reply times and working hours in your email signature. Giurge warns that is easily ignored or missed, though recipients can also set response rules, saying they’ll only answer messages at certain times. That at least sets expectations, and if a faster reply is needed, the sender knows to pick up the phone—or send a DM.
Managers can help by keeping to such rules, helping to create a culture or set of norms around email. “If bosses and team leaders are sending emails on a Friday night and not indicating that they don’t need a reply, that’s telling people they need to be working all the time,” says Bohns
There may be a simpler solution: just say your message isn’t urgent. Giurge advises making use of subject lines by clearly labelling an email with “read this later” or “not urgent,” letting the receiver relax. “Simply make the implicit expectations explicit by adding a line to make it clear this is not an urgent response,” she says.
Some email clients have ways to label a message as requiring immediate followup or being of high priority—we need to do the same with messages that are low priority. “We are very good at indicating when things are urgent, with all caps and red exclamation points,” says Bohns, adding that we need a green exclamation point to show something isn’t urgent, that it can be answered asynchronously in our own time.
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But when has anyone ever marked an email as low priority? Giurge says it’s possible to do so in Outlook, but she’s never seen anyone use that tool, perhaps because senders don’t want to suggest their work isn’t important. “Maybe we’re a little bit afraid of doing that—but if we’re not doing it, we’re not protecting each other’s boundaries,” she says.
While Giurge has never received an email from anyone marked as low priority, Bohns has—from Giurge herself. “Laura said she never gets low-priority emails, but I get them from one person: her,” Bohns says. “She labels everything as not urgent.”
And those receiving her emails say they appreciate it. “I have received some feedback where people say it eases their mind to see that note,” Giurge says. “And on my side, it helps me because I know I’m not infringing on other people’s time.” Bohns agrees, saying it helps reduce pressure—though she admits that, as an inbox-zero person, she still can’t resist wanting to clear her messages.
So stop with the calls to kill email—we’re the problem, not inboxes. “I think there’s a lot of advice out there blaming technology and how we should use less email or none at all—that it’s the fault of technology and we’re not to blame,” says Bohns. “But it’s just about better email and the way we engage with it.”
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