Recreating Email

In my previous post, I wrote a little bit about how technology encodes values. So now I want to rant about the values encoded in email. Email values the always available. It values immediacy of online-ness. It values bulk addressing and archiving. And I blame it for being the major reason everyone runs around these days saying how busy they are.

But of course email isn’t an ‘it.’ It’s a technological system, built by people, and it can be changed! It can! It can have different kinds of functionality. Someone at some point decided email should be able to be formatted like word processors — so now we have bold, italics, etc. So let’s be creative about what’s possible with email — and what we could make impossible if we wanted.

So here’s my proposal: Some email programs let you write an email and then mark it for later delivery. So you can work away in the middle of the night, but tell your server not to send the message just yet. Maybe you want to think it over, maybe you don’t want people to know you were working at 3 am, maybe you don’t want to set precedent for workplace email being sent over the weekend. But wait!! you say. You mean…the workplace could have different expectations?

Heck yes!!!  I say.

But it can’t be a movement of individuals. It needs institutional buy-in.

Here’s how it works: Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.

So email only gets delivered during work hours. But let’s say I have a couple close colleagues with whom I collaborate, and I want to be able to reach them at any time. In order to do that, I have to ask their permission, a kind of friend request. And they have to agree. It’s a two-way handshake, like a pgp key. And it expires quarterly. So just because you give me access to you 24/7, doesn’t mean that will last forever. Every quarter I have to specifically reinvite you and you have to agree. Which means my 24/7 list won’t spiral out of control unless I want it to. If we’re working on a project together and need 24/7 access, when the project is over, I don’t reinvite. Or you don’t accept the invitation. Two-way handshake that expires. Key.

At first there would no doubt be piles of email in everyone’s account at the start of each day. But gradually that will decrease. Just think — all the email that gets generated because of back and forths outside of work hours will gradually ease. And since you know you can only reach people during the workday, people might actually start walking over to someone else’s office/desk. Or picking up the phone. Remember the phone? I loved the phone. So quick and easy to resolve a tricky question over the phone, a little back and forth dialog, you can quickly clarify misunderstandings. Ahh….the phone.

It’s not like we all stay up all night leaving each other voicemails. And yet, we do this without abandon with email. It’s sweet (sort of) that my colleagues are thinking about me at 1 am, but really…it can wait till tomorrow.

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8 Responses to Recreating Email

  1. Magda says:

    But then wouldn’t over time everyone be forced to take on the ‘friend request’ especially from a boss?

    Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the idea, and having an option to send an email at a later automatic date needs to be something Google should give us.

    • bethkolko says:

      I totally agree that there would be social pressure to accept the 24/7 request, especially from bosses. Two thoughts:
      1. I am thoroughly open to the idea that this idea would fail miserably. But I am also thoroughly convinced that we have to do *something*. The current pace of information creation and consumption just isn’t sustainable. I’m pretty sure we’ll look back in 20 years and say “wow! What on earth were we thinking with those work patterns and information flows?! It’s amazing everyone’s brain didn’t explode!” It’s doubtful this is the solution, but maybe if we could articulate some of the values inherent in the current design of email systems, and then think about other values we’d like to encode, we could generate some different designs.
      2. I do think people are getting a little more habituated to turning down friend requests on fb, connection requests on linkedin, etc. But if we are really committed to making this an institutional push, make it a metric for bosses! In their yearly evaluation, ask what percentage of their employees they have 24/7s with. If the percentage is too high by the institution’s values, they get dinged in their evaluation.

      Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful comment!

  2. Alex Finkelstein says:

    Dear Beth, I completely agree that the Email need to be “fixed” as it creates overload. What would you say that instead of rules that restrict the Send/Receive to working hours, the idea of the “desktop” will be transferred into the inbox – meaning that the email is still arriving in whatever time it is sent but it is accumulated on the “desktop” – which in turn has the regular working hours. So, as far as the sender is concerned, the Email was sent and has reached my “desk” but if I am not in the office, I can’t see it, right? (such as a paper memo that was placed in my in-tray, while I am away).
    From the view point of the recipient (me) I have the same working privileges as I have in my current inbox (send receive, remote access, etc.), but I need to flag clearly if I have seen the particular item on my “desk” or not.
    The way i see it, this will have the advantages of your idea about setting the boundaries, while not applying to many restrictions on the users and the corporate system.
    However…the immediate issue is the question – what is considered as the office? If we are talking global corporations then there is the GMT issue to consider and also there is an issue of the “remote desktops” of various kind (working from home, seminar, etc).
    Thank you for a great and thought provoking post!

  3. R says:

    I was part of a small workgroup once where, as an experiment, email clients were set to check only on at the top and bottom of the hour, on the theory that this would decrease interruptions and chatter around issues that were best solved directly by voice contact. It worked, but people got annoyed when they found out since *they* would never waste time, special boys and princesses all.

  4. Greg Linster says:

    Great post! I think it’s a wonderful idea to limit email delivery times. I’ll add the following: what if email was only delivered twice a day on work email accounts? This could potentially give people longer periods of uninterrupted creative time in the office which is key to doing “real” work. If there was a pressing matter colleagues could always use the phone or walk over to someones desk. Paradoxically, I think people might actually get more work done with less email pressure in this scenario too.

    I’m curious, what do you think smartphones tell us about our values? I find that cell phones create many of the same problems you describe about email. It’s harder and harder to take a “real” vacation anymore thanks to smartphones and emails.

  5. Abhishek says:

    If people start walking to each other’s office how about a person who is trying to focus on work. I guess this will bring back active communication back which is good and bad. Good probably because it will be faster resolve conflict etc but then a person won’t have time for herself to accomplish things.

    I don’t think email is broken especially after inventions like priority inbox from gmail.

    You can chose to ignore, delete, spam and not to reply emails. It is the best form of passive communication. You are not expected to reply right away.

    I would not like people coming to my place and asking me things now and then. I would certainly like them to email their issues which can certainly wait for some more time till I get a chance to reply.

  6. Pingback: » Thoughts on Revamping Email in the Office Coffee Theory

  7. Hello, the idea is very interesting as a thought experiment. In practice one serious difficulty concerns time zones – how would emailing between Warsaw and San Francisco work, if my work hours are at night (PST) and vice-versa? The systems could of course respect first one time zone and then the next, but it would further stretch waiting times.

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