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“A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email

Mark, G.J., Voida, S. & Cardello, A.V. (to appear). “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. To appear in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2012), Austin, Texas, May 5–10. ACM Press.

Abstract
We report on an empirical study where we cut off email usage for five workdays for 13 information workers in an organization. We employed both quantitative measures such as computer log data and ethnographic methods to compare a baseline condition (normal email usage) with our experimental manipulation (email cutoff). Our results show that without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus, as measured by a lower frequency of shifting between windows and a longer duration of time spent working in each computer window. Further, we directly measured stress using wearable heart rate monitors and found that stress, as measured by heart rate variability, was lower without email. Interview data were consistent with our quantitative measures, as participants reported being able to focus more on their tasks. We discuss the implications for managing email better in organizations.

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Starting with the past, Washington Post got some hoax busting advice from email historians that resulted in a long but not quite satisfying article with some very good links to orthodox and substantiated email histories including a section on email from Dave Crocker’s Living Internet and Tom Van Vleck’s entry that credits Noel Morris as Tom’s partner in electronic mail creation starting in 1965 (and noted by Noel’s brother film-maker Earl as discussed earlier on this blog). Success has many fathers, but Tom and Noel are clearly the first to implement a mail program.

Meanwhile Megan Garber writing in The Atlantic discovers what I (and many others) have been claiming right along, “‘The Future of Email’ … Looks a Lot Like Twitter”. What she discovers is:

Fluent, a new service that integrates with Gmail (and eventually, its creators say, with other email platforms) to deliver messages in the flowing fashion of a social media feed. The service, built by a team of former Google developers — the guys responsible for Wave, but don’t hold that against them — converts Gmail’s grids into a message-sharing service that’s more dynamic and fluid than any kind of letter-writing has been before, giving way to an inbox that’s not a box at all so much as a Twitter-like feed of information.

I think I’ve mentioned earlier that Wave was a good idea executed terribly from a social point of view (to say the least). Nonetheless I found it useful as it combined many of my styles of communicating, integrated many of the sites and environments that I used to communicate and allowed me to “slice and dice” the various threads and conversations.

I’m no longer interested in how to improve email or it’s best current implementation – Gmail — but if I were I’d be giving Fluent.io a test drive.

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November was my 6th month of #noemail and people have learned well how to reach me by means other than email. I think my “vacation” message offering the many alternatives to email helped a lot on this front. As you will see from my deep analysis of the 12 Gmail Priority Messages that I received, no one wrote me angry messages or felt the need to explain to me why I must use email (save one sender).

I divide email-ers into four categories:

  1. evil robots – These send the most email by volume and the least useful email. We call them “spammers” as does Gmail which generally does a great job of dumping these complete time wasters into the Spam Folder. And my favorite email to hate — email that responds to my vacation message with “WARNING This is a Send Only Account” — and one most often that escapes the Spam Filter. Nonetheless, occasionally email that mattered (to me in the past) would end up in the Spam Folder causing me to look into this garbage pail. Of my — and of most others — mail, this amounted 90% of the mail received.
  2. well-meaning robots – Listservs that you always meant to read or forgotten that you subscribed to, Offers from sites you forgot to opt out of, Political messages that were important in some contexts, Alerts telling you about what you just ordered, Alerts about shipping dates for what you just ordered, Confirmations, Reminders of things you wish you could forget, More special offers that you might possibly want some day. These are usually in the non-Priority Inbox in Gmail — again Gmail is very helpful this way — and amount to about 80% of the non-Spam/non-evil robot email.
  3. well-meaning people – They think about 20 plus of their pals want attachments about their family, about fake church signs, about their political causes, about Groupon, about the last message they sent (as in “I want to make sure everyone got this. Some folks email programs blocked it last time”). They want to set up a meeting (I refer them to Gcalendar in my “vacation” message). They have Replied All to some one else’s message inappropriately. They want to collaboratively edit a document (It’s attached. It’s in an ancient version of Word. Or if from a lawyer friend in WordPerfect. Or worse in one case in the past 6 months — a PDF!); I refer them to Gdocs for this. Do not send attachments. Period. No excuses. No Exceptions. Share your pictures on Flickr, Smugmug, Picasa, or Facebook, please.

    Arranging meetings deserves a paragraph of its own. A committee of a dozen people doesn’t need to “send your available dates to the list and be sure to ReplyAll;” we should learn to use Doodle and we’ll all be happier and more efficient. Sign up. Check off your availability. Set the date for the meeting. Done. #noemail needed.

    Overall, well meaning people’s messages account for about 98% of the email not sent by robots.

  4. Real messages from real people with real requirements – I received 12 emails during the month of November that qualified as “Real messages from real people with real requirements.” Of those half solved their problem or concern themselves within a few hours of sending the message and didn’t follow up with any of the alternative suggestions from my vacation responder. Three almost immediately contacted me by Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+. One called me on my phone.

    Two were from a friend in a higher level administrative postion who also sent me Facebook messages to tell me that he had sent me email. We are still friends — so far. (I know you are taunting me, but I resist even naming you here).

Most regular correspondents have already migrated to #noemail solutions.

Final tally. About 100 non-Spam emails/day. About 20 of those per day were from well-meaning people. And of the 3,000 non-Spam emails received in November, 0.4% were Priority and from real people with real requirements. Or about 3 per week.

Happy #noemail New Year.

Thanks to Rebecca Radish who sends, via Twitter, a link to this NPR story, “Analyze This: You Wrote How Many Emails This Year?” The sweet little app requires Gmail but promises interesting results and insights to those who dare look at their own email habits.

Felix Salmon writing for Reuters in an article just published as “How social networks beat email” reports:

My work email account, in particular, is a nightmare: it’s 95% unsolicited PR pitches and 4% internal emails going out to enormous distribution lists which I have no interest in at all. Which means I have to go to a lot of effort to find the 1% of emails that I actually want to read. There’s got to be a better way.

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Steve Gillmor of Gillmor Gang writes in TechCrunch about “Remembering Email” which is much like remembering the magic of Top 40 Radio or maybe the first clear FM stations. Steve notes that notifications have taken over his attention and ours, but even more the attention of our kids.
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised by this. Short, fast, highly interactive, mobile. That’s the future of messaging. And that ain’t email. And in case, you haven’t noticed that ain’t even voice anymore. Kids text more than voice and more than email. Many of us older folks do as well. The trend lines are set and the practices of business are changing (again see this blog).
Email puts knowledge in siloed inboxes; social (as Luis Suarez has been saying) makes knowledge more open, additive and makes us all richer. The business case, at least internally, is clear.
Steve notices that email serves most often as the default way to notify us of social updates. But, as he also notices, the new robust iOS notifications do a much better job. Those changes sent many folks running to shut off email notifications and get the notification clutter out of the inbox and on the palm top where they are Short, fast, highly interactive, mobile
Steve has additional observations about authority, command and control, sharing, and even the privacy of direct messages.
All good. Email contains the seeds of its own destruction. “The reason email will disappear is because it is the single most effective tool for moving to social.” Once that bridge is effectively crossed, we’ll burn it behind us.

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Atos world headquarters
Atos SA CEO Thierry Breton really opened the #noemail discussion to a wider audience with his announcement that Atos, one of the world’s largest technology companies, would put an end to internal email within 18 months. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Press Release is that it is dated February 7, 2011 and is just this week making news and getting reactions. Less surprising is that the report is fairly clear and terse and to the point — yet, the interpretation of that release has been uniformly misread, misunderstood, and misreported.

Here’s the gist in a quote from the release:

In line with [Atos Origin]‘s Wellbeing at Work Programme launched in 2009 to support its goal of being one of the best places to work, [Atos] has implemented a number of initiatives to improve communication and information sharing across its organization For example, it is encouraging the use of tools such as Office Communicator and has set up social community platforms to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation and Lean Management through to sales. Initial feedback is that these type of tools reduce email by between 10 and 20% immediately.

Information overload – the facts:

  • By 2013, more than half of all new digital content will be the result of updates to, and editing of existing information
  • Online social networking is now more popular than email and search
  • Middle managers spend more than 25% of their time searching for information
  • 2010 : Corporate users receive 200 mails per day, 18% of which is spam

So far so good. But after a panic and overreaction this past week, Thierry Breton was on BBC explaining the program largely by quoting or restating the same information that can be found in the February 2011 press release.

One thing not much noticed in the US press is that the driver for #noemail isn’t a capricious decision by Breton, but a suggestion from an employee-run study group. The company is made up of young people and getting younger as it grows. As studies cited earlier in this blog show, the kids don’t get email. Especially clunkers like Outlook.

This is part of a global initiative that we initiated in ATOS almost three years ago called “Wellbeing At Work” – a knowledge network made up of new talents in the company.

Their mission, in addition to their normal job, is to provide new ideas to enhance working conditions.

They put on the table the fact that most of the young people that we were hiring were not using email anymore after graduating from universities.

They were instead mainly using instant messaging tools and social networks like Facebook – and for most of them, when they joined Atos it was first time they had ever worked with internal email tools like [Microsoft] Outlook.

One note of clarity and of amusement: Breton supports external email (clarifying part). His email as posted on his bio page is more-info@atos.net a generic company email addy.

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Much of the media is jazzed about Thierry Breton’s decision to end corporate email within Atos SA in the next 18 months. Can he do it? Is he sane? What will come of it if it does work? And hey, we did that already ourselves.

In this last camp are: Klick in INC’s “The Company That Outlawed Email”, BonitaSoft in GigaOM as Email in the enterprise: entering its twilight at 40? and How We Killed Email: To Save Time and Sanity. The second by BonitaSoft CEO Miguel Valdes Faura and third by Josh Smith of GotToBeMobile and Notebooks offer suggestions for alternatives and productivity enhancers that would be quite helpful to anyone embarking on a corporate #noemail campaign.

Joe Mortis - #noemail

The New York Times catches the #noemail wave in their Room for Debate blog with the cleverly rhymed “Should Workplaces Curtail E-Mail?”. Here four experts or at least four people with vested opinions write short provocative essays to give rise to a spirited discussion or just troll for responses. Email or #noemail experts offered are:

Nicholas G. Carr author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and a lecturer on no email and no social networking who uses underdeveloped brain research to argue that Google/Internet/email makes us stupid(er). In his piece “Put the Cost Back in Communication,” Carr argues predictably that distractions — email and social media make you stupid(er).

William Powers, the author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” has a twitter handle @HamletsBB. He’s not worried about his brain changing — he can quote Plato still — but he is concerned that we need both connectedness and disconnectedness. A basic “let’s use technology appropriately” argument. How could that go wrong? In some ways, it’s Nicholas Carr lite. In his essay, “The Phony ‘Zero E-Mail’ Alarm,” Power praises connectedness and warns of overload citing Jonathan Spira’s “Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization” for support. Finally, Power suggests that we meet Face to Face. In full disclosure, I can say that I’m closest to Power’s position (so far).

Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta-based personal productivity expert and Outlook consultant, and the author of “Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette and Outlook 2007″ thinks the technology is just fine. People need to change. It’s so simple. Their brains aren’t changing, but they should be changed. People should follow the rules and suggestions in her book. Or hire her as a consultant. Get rid of face to face; let employees “meet with their in inboxes instead.” Peggy, you had me at Outlook. Srzly?

That leaves us with my ole pal and #noemail pioneer Luis Suarez aka @elsua. Luis as readers of this blog know is a social computing evangelist at IBM, helping to accelerate the adoption of social networking tools as business tools. And Luis has been off corporate email and on social media solutions since 2008. You might expect that Luis would make a strong case for #noemail. But you would be wrong. Luis instead cautions against being too rash or too quick to kick out email in his essay “What We Would Miss.” As much as I respect Luis, I feel he is too moderate in his message especially given that this is a debate. True that Carr and Power aren’t taking the side of email at all. But neither are they exactly on the side of the move to social media. Luis and I have long had a disagreement about email as the best way for a private interchange (he says it is and I say you gotta be kidding, DM or SMS or other messaging is better for this) and to schedule meetings (he says it is and I say you gotta be kidding, use a shared calendar or Doodle.com).

Unlike the other authors, Luis responds to every comment that is at least half sane. Props to Luis! He is social. He is doing the work. He is not even selling a book. As a result, Luis’ thread is by far the best read of the debate. Social rules! Especially when lead by and experienced social media communicator.

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While some like Observer (UK) writer John Naughton are LOLing over Mark Zuckerberg’s observation that email is dead,” others, like Atos SA (Europe’s Largest IT Company) CEO Theirry Breton are kicking email out of their companies.
Thierry Breton - Credits:  France Télécom
Breton’s pronouncements got ink (err electrons too) in Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph (UK) yesterday before getting the hyperactive Slashdot treatment. today. Among the firebombs tossed by Breton were:

“The email is no longer the appropriate (communication) tool. The deluge of information will be one of the most important problems a company will have to face (in the future). It is time to think differently.”

“Companies must prepare for the new wave of usage and behaviour”

Obvious statements to folks reading this blog or who have since shutoff email themselves.

Not that everyone agrees. Dudley Dawson at examiner.com composed a long whine about Breton including a critic of his English (or of the translator’s version of Breton. I await to read with some anticipated glee Dawson’s French postings.) Dawson raises many points, misfiring on each and misinterpreting all while missing the main point — collaboration and social are less served by email.

But with Atos and IBM both pushing for #noemail workplaces, Naughton’s claim that “[T]he main reason young people don’t use email is that they haven’t yet joined the world of work” becomes more empty and obviously reactionary and tired. Work at great companies isn’t about getting stuck in unproductive technologies but about pressing forward to a more efficient and productive future — without email.

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A recent BBC article, Clash of the titans: Email v social media by Fiona Graham (Nov 25, 2011) falls solidly and flatly in the “He said, she said” camp of reporting.

Ping ponging back and forth between experts on social media — Zuckerberg is pictured with his vision of better messaging’s somewhat redundant six points — informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short — Graham recounts very briefly the history of email name-checking @ sign promulgator Ray Tomlinson in the process.

Overdue attention is given to MIME creator Nathaniel Borenstein. Borenstein notes that email use continues to grow and rues the slow uptake that IBM’s LotusLive has seen. Graham notes that until recently Borenstein was an IBM employees working on LotusLive. Borenstein became chief scientist at email management company, Mimecast, in June 2010

Who speaks for social? Lee Bryant, co-founder of Headshift, the world’s biggest social business consultancy (according to Graham). I wonder what he will say. “He believes email’s dominance over business communications is coming to an end.” Since he’s based his business on this, I guess so.

But setting the snark aside for a paragraph or two, I agree with Bryant as he opines:
I think we’ve reached the stage where email as means of communicating is overloaded. I think we will see what happens on email today transitioning towards various kinds of both internal and consumer facing social tools.”

For a finale, Graham turns to Dave Coplin, head of Microsoft’s Envisioneers team. The guy who works for a company heavily invested in email solutions — Outlook, Exchange and HotMail — and famously unsuccessful at anything social can’t find anything wrong with email. Social media is just a “shiny new penny.” The Envisoneer is no Imagineer. He cannot speak publicly in a way that would disrupt his company. He does in the course of the discussion utter a keen observation: “I think that email is dead when it comes to social media in the same way that snail mail was dead when it came to email.”

Perhaps he’s still writing letters in the way we wrote them in 1960 or sending postcards as frequently. Maybe he hasn’t noticed that the USPS is seeing a precipitous drop in first class mail usage. Heck, we don’t even get billed on paper any more. Yes, I agree with the Softie: snail mail is diminished and fading like AM radio. Email will soon follow.

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A tribute to Luis Suarez (aka @elsua) in the form of a Dutch/English language site — Moving/Collaborating/Sharing/Connecting/Thinking/Helping/Innovating/Working/Living Outside the Inbox — from IBM Netherlands. Includes the Prezi from my talk at Duke last month “#noemail – Why you could/should/must use better ways of communicating than email” and this interview with Luis:

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Aditya Johri. (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA)
Look ma, #noemail !: blogs and IRC as primary and preferred communication tools in a distributed firm. CSCW ’11 – Proceedings of the ACM 2011 conference on Computer supported cooperative work. Pages 305-308.

Abstract

Email has been the primary communication medium in organizations for decades and despite studies that demonstrate its obvious disadvantages, the prevailing thinking is that email is irreplaceable. In this paper I challenge that view through a field study of a distributed firm that is highly successful in developing and delivering products without regular use of email in the workplace. Group blogging and IRC were the primary tools used and they allowed improved coordination and knowledge sharing compared to email. This paper contributes to scant literature in CSCW on firm-level technology use.

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Original post at Mashable Comics by Matt Silverman. Discovered at Fail Blog’s Work Fail section by @tuckcomatus

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Louis Richardson’s slides, as seen below, with his narration as a YouTube video. Recommended.

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US News Best Colleges

Menachen Wecker’s article “5 Tips for Managing Your Campus E-mail: Students can use a variety of techniques, including filtering, creating folders, and flagging spam” begins:

If you E-mail Paul Jones, you will receive an auto-response explaining why the journalism professor at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (UNC) quit using E-mail on June 1, 2011—and why there must be a better way to communicate.

In a phone interview, Jones says he stopped E-mailing because his inbox was clogged by computer-generated spam.

“When I started using E-mail 25 years ago, I sent mail to people, and people sent mail to me,” he says. “Now Amazon sends me mail telling me I just ordered a book. I know I just ordered a book, you idiot, I still have the browser open!”

Some recent research suggests that college students may increasingly share Jones’s view of E-mail as “a complete time sink.” A 2010 Pew Internet report finds that 11 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds exchange daily E-mails with friends, and 54 percent text message daily. A white paper released in early 2011 by the Internet marketing research company, comScore, charts a 59 percent decline in E-mail use by 12-to-17-year-olds in 2010.

But according to the recently released National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, which surveyed 3,000 students at 1,179 colleges and universities, 39 percent of respondents wish their professors used E-mail more often, and 75 percent send or receive an average of 25 E-mails a day.

In the course of the article, I offer more advice about managing email in college including: Don’t use it, Let others read it instead, and Unsubscribe from every listserv that you can possibly unsubscribe to. Read. Enjoy. Learn. Do.

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Private social networks playing Facebook role in more workplaces (Carolyn Duffy Marsan. Network World, October 20, 2011)

In the last 18 months, hundreds of thousands of companies have signed up for private cloud-based social networking services such as Yammer, Chatter, Huddle and Jive — all of which are modeled after Facebook.

Today, millions of U.S. workers are using these social networking services on the job instead of e-mail, Intranet sites, wikis, blogs or other collaboration software. CIOs are reporting significant returns on their investments in these services, which cost $5 or less per user, per month.

“Social networking is really powerful because it allows people to have real conversations with each other, and it’s unfiltered,” says Chris Laping, CIO of the Denver-based Red Robin Gourmet Burger chain and a Yammer user. “It’s a great way for me to get a pulse check on the topics that people are talking about in the regions, whether it’s labor costs or food costs. …There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t see some conversation on Yammer that I don’t think: ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’”

Email Driving Your Business Crazy? Dump It and Embrace Social Software! (Socialize Me. Luis Benitez. October 20, 2011)

A lot of my colleagues express amusement when I tell them that I’ve been able to reduce my inbox from 100+ emails/day to ~20 emails/day. The first question they always ask is: “How did you do it?”

It wasn’t easy and it has taken time, but I was motivated by Luis Suarez. Luis was was interviewed by Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur in their Net@Night show last year and is living the dream: a world without email. It was one of Luis’ webinars that introduced me to the concept of moving away from email and embracing social software.

Luis Benitez includes a SlideShare from IBM’s Louis Richardson:

Benitez also includes this terse but useful summary of Richardson’s presentation:

Richardson summarizes why a business should embrace social software over email:

Open the conversation, leverage the wisdom of the crowds
Use networks and communities to target the conversation
Easily capture intellectual capital and avoid re-inventing the wheel
And most of all: It’s Easy. Low Impact. High Value!

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Great, if a bit noisy, hall interview with Luis Suarez at Jamcamp yesterday. He is down to three social networks: Twitter, Google Plus and IBM Connections (for work) –no Facebook (because he dislikes the Terms of Service).

Good insights. Including how to stay in contact with your clients without email.

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Thomas Ciszek of the Search Agency looks great in a bow tie as he talks about alternatives to email in this video.

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Carolina Technology Consultants

What: The Logic and Destiny of #noemail
When: Thursday, October 20 11:30 AM – 12:15 PM
Where: Student Union Room 3205, UNC
Who: Carolina Technology Consultants

Prezi: Here Now with The Who doing the Kids Are Alright or as http://tinyurl.com/noemail-uncctc

Description:

Nearly 30 years ago Paul Jones began working on unified messaging systems leading from Call-OS, USENET, WYLBUR, TSO, BITNET, DARPA, ARPA to modern (for its time) SMTP mail. That was then, and this is now. Email has become a zombie that doesn’t realize that it’s dead and falling apart, a vampire that sucks your life’s blood away slowly each night. You’ve probably noticed this yourself.

Jones has put email behind him. In an attempt to atone for his part for inflicting email on UNC, he is exploring alternatives to email with a shotgun and a wooden stake (and Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.) as his tools.

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Just back from giving a talk and having a talk with the folks at Duke University who do Web and Communications work there. The subject? Productivity in the form of #noemail

Here’s the Prezi:

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No Email Day - 11/11/11 - #noemail

Martin Bryant, writing at The Next Web (insider), covers the 40 years of email from the first email sent by MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson who was working at research and development firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman to the pending end of email and the coming of #noemail. Yes, Tomlinson confesses that his very first mail was likely gibberish or what we now call spam, likely “‘QWERTY’ or another string of characters”.

Spam continues to be part of the email life, if you can call that life. “Pingdom claims that 262 billion spam messages were sent daily in 2010, that’s 89.1% of all emails sent.” (emphasis added).

But the nail in the email coffin isn’t spam, but a changing culture that requires something better, faster, more personal, more mobile, more like IM, Messenger, GTalk, Facebook, and/or Google+. ” A ComScore study on 2010 digital trends in the US found that Web email usage saw an 8% year-on-year decline in 2010 overall, with a 59% decline in use among people aged between 12-17.” (again I add emphasis).

Perhaps with that change in mind, Paul Lancaster of Plan Digital UK has declared 11/11/11 as No Email Day. Join me in joining his Facebook group/page and by letting email alone on that special day. You’ll be glad you did.

Paul Lancaster respects email and sees it as vital. I don’t endorse that view, but I do endorse 11/11/11 as #NoEMail Day.

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I won’t rehearse the myth of Sisyphus here. But suffice it to say that I don’t agree with Camus when he concludes his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I am happy when I play Tetris although I know that that game is only about struggle that will never end. The difference is that I decide to engage in the game myself. Sisyphus had no such choice. And I can abandon Tetris at any moment, sans the grip that the game holds on my through my own competitive nature. Again Sisyphus could not end his torment on his own.

What does this have to do with email and #noemail? A wise observation by Andrew Hyde in a tweet that returns to me via Mark Suster‘s post at CloudAve.com titled Why Email May Be Draining Your Company’s Productivity is right on target.

@AndrewHyde tweets: inbox = tetris getting zero lines doesn’t win it just makes the next move easy.

Mark goes on in his article to talk about his own experiences with the illusive inbox zero and the impact of email and normalized email behaviors on his life as a VC and startup exec. Some of Mark’s insights as specific to his work (as he himself notes) but many are very useful in getting us all to do a bit more out of the (in)box thinking.

email is Tetris; not Sisyphus’ stone. There are alternatives. You can escape.

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