Slaves to E-Mail?

Over the past few days, it seems that I've been involved in a few conversations about the volume of e-mail at Microsoft. My general impression is that most of us believe that we send and receive a lot of e-mail as compared to others. Of course, we don't really have any data to back this up (at least none that I'm aware of); and frankly, I'm not sure we'd be thrilled if we discovered that we actually do send more. Is sending more e-mail a good thing? Or does it simply illustrate that we're slaves to our technology?

As many of you know, I was with Microsoft Consulting Services as a field employee for almost five years before I relocated to Redmond, Washington in January of this year. Although I didn't change companies, there was an obvious increase in e-mail traffic after I made the move. The culture here at corporate seems to enjoy cc'ing anyone who might have anything to say about a given topic. It sometimes reminds me of decision by committee. Good or bad, I've found myself following their lead.

Sure, there are lots of impromptu hallway conversations and meetings, but if the topic is something that we want to have on record, it better be discussed via e-mail. That creates another problem: how does someone actually store all of these conversations in a meaningful and searchable way? There have actually been books written on this topic. You've probably heard others blog about Take Back Your Life: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized or David Allen's Getting Things Done. These books and programs contain some useful ideas...don't get me wrong. But that's only if you accept that the deluge of e-mail is actually providing a benefit to the work you do.

As a thought experiement, what if you sent and received so much e-mail that it actually replaced all phone calls, meetings, and verbal communication? Would you be any more efficient or effective just because you've written a lot, have an "audit trail" of the communications, and allowed your recipients to reply at their convenience (usually when they're sitting in another meeting)? 🙂 Or would you just have improved your typing skills and your ability to configure fancy rules in Outlook? And if this continued ad infinitum, how much storage would you need!?

There's certainly tremendous value in communication. But, for most positions, is the value mostly in the communication itself? Perhaps if you're someone who is spending most of their time coordinating or managing a group of people, this makes sense. For someone who has other activities to perform, after a certain threshold, it would seem that e-mail is more of a distraction.

The other problem is signal to noise ratio. Because we receive many e-mails that aren't addressed directly to us (via cc, bcc, or distribution list, for example), I think we stop spending the time to carefully read and consider each e-mail message. The "noise" side of the ratio gets so high that we become sloppy. Speaking from personal experience—and today alone—I had to answer three questions that I had just answered in prior e-mails to the same people. Fortunately (or not), a lot of us have resorted to succint bullet-point e-mails that use underlining, boldfacing, or highlighting to focus the attention of our readers.

I may sound like I'm ranting, but I'm really just musing on the volume of e-mail at Microsoft. It's caused me to examine when and why I send an e-mail message versus when I pick up the phone or walk down the hall. I just took a moment to count the number of e-mail messages in my sent items folder (replies, original e-mails, etc.) over the past week. Here are the results:

  • Wednesday (today): 134
  • Tuesday: 98
  • Monday: 125
  • Friday: 100
  • Thursday: 81

I compared my numbers to this O'Reilly Survey, and I'm afraid that I fall into the "more than 60" category. I know that I'm not unique. Granted, it's PDC time, and communications are high, but these don't seem overly abnormal to me.

What's your experience? How many e-mails have you sent over the past week?

Comments (7)

  1. Joe Chung says:

    The whole notion of "cc’ing" other people your e-mail is an artifact of the lack of any relatively useful structure for sharing the kinds of information that is stored in e-mail.

    It’s not unique to Microsoft so perhaps it’s a problem worth tackling. Certainly something that a software company like Microsoft should be considering, especially if you all are suffering from its effects.

  2. Sometimes, you just want to make people aware of issues (via cc), and sometimes you specifically require comment (via the direct recipient line). We run an internal blog, so our policy is that if you just want to make people aware of something, you blog it, if you want direct comment, you email it. People can still comment via the blog, but generally those are different processes, so it’s a bit slower of a time frame and often less distracting. It also generates less "volume" than email.

  3. Travis Owens says:

    I’m just throwing this out to left field but I would think a web forum (ala Sharepoint) would be the best way to discuss a topic, and perhaps and email is fired off (if the end users allow this) to key people that take interest in that topic.

    This way the people on the recieving end of your current CC’s have the option of only looking over topics in the web forum when they have time or motivation to do so, instead of being forced to see your email (even if they only delete it), which in essenace could be wasting their time.

    While I deal with a fair amount of email where I work now, I can definetly see how email can assume massive amounts of time. In a perfect world, when having a phone convo, you could opt to mark the phone convo as being public info and it gets speech recognition’d into this same online forum. This way your person2person convos could also be digital information set in stone. People could then quote & comment on the forum post.

    This concept can easily be applied to meetings where you simply voice conf in the speech recognition box.

    But this concept does not scale well to hallway convos, as nobody would want to carry audio recorders around their neck or want microphones in the hallway.

    Finally, back to Outlook, I definetly agree in high volume email scenarios one might have to setup lots of complex rules and folders to keep things under control.

  4. Travis Owens says:

    PS: You do go through a lot of email, assumming you aren’t a manager or project manager.

    I was out on vacation for a week (5 biz days) and had 90 emails awating me, you appear to get that much in a day.

    The question is, how many hours per day do you spend emailing? Time to break out the old stop watch! While I haven’t timed myself, I suspect I’m spending 30-45mins per day on emails.

  5. Bill Nitz says:

    I’ve sent 9 emails and received 35 emails this week, Mike.

    Staying engaged at a customer site for several years has its advantages, doesn’t it? 🙂

  6. Laura Sample says:

    I just counted mine for the week-and not counting any more for tonight (I have a few more hours left) I’m at 95 for the week.

    I am of two minds on the topic. Email is convenient because it’s so much easier to keep track of. I can quickly see who I’ve responded to, who I need info from, what I said, what she said….I’m so forgetful that email is a great reminder to me. And if you’ve ever seen the dumpster that is my desk, you’d know that written notes would NOT do the same.

    On the other hand, my email numbers are low because in my job it’s to my benefit to talk to people face to face as much as possible. Now, I work on a campus with 10 different buildings in town plus two sites in other areas of Michigan. In addition, I support leaders on all three shifts plus the weekend shift. So face-to-face is not always easy. But it does make a big impact. Sups are always amazed that I would change my schedule just to meet them rather than do it over email.

    I also think it’s easier to be blunt and even rude in email. Face-to-face and even over the phone often requires a bit more "humanity". Some of this has to do with the relationships that are difficult to build over email. Part of it has to do with the protection we feel over email—and the sudden ability to feel honest and bold. Which is better–honest or nice? Ahh, there’s the rub. But it IS a difference.

    I love email–it is so much more efficient for me. But I do know there are limits and sometimes it is CRAZY how much we’re emailed. My best example of this is that because I am technically part of Human Resources, I get every single notice of every single job that we post in the company. Usually a couple a day, sometimes many more. And why do I care?? I don’t! It’s just "junk" mail.

    Good topic, as always. :)L

  7. Hi Michael

    I have installed this reporting tool many times – it has many reports but one is a report showing how many emails everyone is sending on your Exchange Server.

    The funny thing is that I notice is that bosses always seem to send the most email. They also work the most hours, so there is a little correlation here…

    This is the utility

    Cheers Adam

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