Ryan Neal, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Seattle, is president and co-founder of Blueprint Technologies, a nationwide technology solutions firm that provides strategy, delivery and product. Ryan has disruptive opinions about email and its role in modern business. We asked him to expound on those ideas; here's what he shared.
Have you ever stepped away from your laptop or phone for a few hours only to return to an inbox filled with unread email? While you focused heads-down on deliverables or an out-of-office meeting, tens, hundreds or even thousands of requests and responses appeared, all awaiting your attention.
This phenomenon is incredibly unproductive yet common. It heightens anxiety by making employees feel like they are behind on work, not performing well or missing opportunities. Successful individuals manage their inboxes by using complex rules and trying to consume emails as fast as possible. Elon Musk contributes much of his success to being very good at responding to email. This developed skill typically leads to hours in front of a screen communicating in a group fashion that is often disjointed and difficult to follow.
Email was invented in the late 1970s to improve group communication, which it did―providing businesses with a better, faster alternative to the traditional office memo or fax. Email dramatically increased regional communication and information sharing. Forty years later, it has also created many unintended consequences: employees experience information overload which leads to increased stress, lower productivity and job dissatisfaction. We've reached email exhaustion: Messages go unread entirely, and it's impossible for employees to stay current.
In my opinion, the advent of email has drastically reduced our interpersonal communication skills as a society. It has relegated both introverts and extroverts to hours in front of a screen each day. The amount of email has become so massive that Microsoft Outlook created a clutter email category in addition to its junk email category to help people manage the insane volume. Nevertheless, our inboxes still fill up.
My Aha! moment
One morning I came into work to find my calendar completely wiped. As I frantically searched for what meetings I needed to attend and which email I was missing, my stress level skyrocketed. When I realized that manually recreating my calendar was impossible, I became very calm. I started interacting with whoever came into my office. It was such a relief to just be in the moment.
That day was eye-opening. As people arrived at my office to meet, I never knew, or cared, if they were on time or if I was late. I had amazing collaborative discussions all day and focused entirely on people―not on a screen.
I am back to using my inbox, but I've removed all recurring meetings, and my email traffic is 20% of what it was before. I'm better able to focus intently on what's most important for each day.
Implement better options
There are better ways to communicate and collaborate that don't include email. Conversational interfaces like SMS, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Facebook enable us to share information rapidly and collaborate iteratively. We no longer need email conversations where responses can be delayed and often lack a concise message. Email has its place, but that's limited to documenting a historical record or memorializing a coherent thought for future recall. New technology has rendered all other uses obsolete.
Our anti-email mantra
Our society is more disconnected than ever; email is a major contributing factor to this epidemic. People have lost the ability to connect, trust and be vulnerable.
In every new hire's onboarding packet, we list employee best practices. The first is, "Stay out of your inbox." This company mantra encourages employees to appreciate the value of human interaction―building trust and bonding between co-workers, breaking down inter-organizational barriers and allowing for creativity and collaboration to flow naturally. Employees can focus on their top priorities in the moment rather than feeling tied to their computers. The people we hire know that their best work happens through face-to-face communication, collaboration and tons of whiteboard time.
Email traffic is a major barrier to better connections with employees, customers and partners. As leaders, we set the communication tone in our organizations. Instead of staying behind a screen, I integrate myself into every aspect of the company. I've gained a thorough understanding of what's happening at the front line and how our leadership team can improve efficiencies and processes.
Tame the email beast
We track email usage on a weekly basis as well as the value created from each of our meetings. Our teams were shocked at the volume of useless traffic that was generated company-wide through distribution lists and recurring meetings.
We implemented the following guidelines:
- No more than 10 emails sent per person per day
- Eliminate all email distribution lists
- Attend no more than five in-person meetings each day
The results speak for themselves: fewer meetings, more interpersonal communication and a higher level of productivity in each department. We are operating with a level of innovation higher than any time in company history.
These changes helped us regain our interpersonal skills, connect better with co-workers, increase productivity and enjoy a more satisfactory work-life experience.
Ready to cut back?
Encourage friends, family and coworkers to communicate in person, get good at being vulnerable and stay out of our inboxes. Start with three small steps:
- Schedule. Set aside specific times during the day to attend to email. If someone needs an answer quickly, they will find a way to get your attention.
- Delegate. Your team is there to help you. Delegation shouldn't take more than five minutes. If you can't determine whether you can delegate it, you probably haven't defined the task clearly enough.
- Speak simply. People will thank you for making requests clearly and concisely instead of having to navigate between several paragraphs to figure out what you need.