Why work email sucks (Volume 49,121)

There are maybe 2,783,491 awful things about work email. It would take me a Stephen King-esque collection of writing books to detail all of the issues therein, but for now we’re going to limit it to one blog post on one specific work email topic.

Let’s start with a little bit of math on work email.

By the end of 2016, an average of 116.4 billion business emails will be sent per day globally. By 2019, that’s expected to be almost 130B per day — but in late 2012, it was only about 89B per day. As terrifying as this may be to admit, work email is growing rapidly. That’s only logical: most of the western business world uses it, and it’s often the fastest way to reach a colleague or contact, especially in another geographic area.

But as that overall number climbs, so too does this number: an average office worker globally (predominantly white-collar-type jobs) gets 121 work emails per day.

That’s a lot of friggin’ work email. And that’s created a series of new problems.

Work email as a defining feature of hierarchy

I’ll keep this fairly simple: by and large, work email is just a function of the existing power structure of your organization. Here’s what I mean:

  • If you’re high up a chain, you can essentially never respond and be fine — or respond at the 11th hour, completely change the project, and never be penalized
  • If you’re low on a chain, you constantly need to be responding or else it seems like you’re not “on top of stuff”

This works for length of email too. See:

  • When you’re high on a chain, you can send short emails scurrying people all around looking for context — and it’s fine
  • If you’re low on a chain and send a short email, you get told you’re not thorough enough. When you send a long email, you get told bosses don’t have the time to read that.

It really is an amazing time to be alive.

So that’s the first thing you need to understand. Work email just exists as a way to reinforce hierarchy. By now, every white-collar office work should have realized that work email is just (a) a leash and (b) often something that creates more problems on projects, but eh. “That’s how business gets done!”

Work email: People who don’t respond

In my mind, there’s a special place in Hades for these cats. I know all the excuses:

  • “I get so much email! I have no time!”
  • “I’m drowning in my work email!”
  • “If I answered every work email, that would be my entire job!”

There is some validity to all of these. However, here’s the central problem. Most people at jobs are lazy. As a result, they hide behind work email. They use it for everything. Oftentimes, stuff that could be a conversation? It becomes work email. This is “how the game is played.”

As a result, when you get work email, you have to respond. At least to the semi-important ones? You can’t be that guy who’s “above it all.” That just makes you a dick.

I worked with this guy once, right? He put this at the bottom of his work email signature:

I check my email roughly two times per day. If urgent, please pick up the phone and call me or walk over to me if you’re local.

OK. That’s not a bad thing to write per se. What do you think happened to this guy?

He averaged about 249 emails per day and eventually went back to checking every 10–12 minutes.

If you work in a company, even if you’re the CEO, you can’t be the standard-bearer around work email. Other people are lazy and will want to email instead of calling or whatever else. You gotta play the game. You actually do need to respond.

Funny story about work email and people who don’t respond

I’ve worked with maybe 12,183 people who don’t respond to work email. All of them make me do a rosary when I think about them. It’s just a disrespectful way to deal with colleagues. Oftentimes, these people wouldn’t even replace email with talking or calling. They’d just ignore you straight up. Now, yes, I am a rank-and-file at most jobs — so maybe I deserve to be ignored. But I’m also working on a project with you. If the project flops, you also look bad to the bosses. That’s what I never understood.

I worked with this kid at ESPN for a while. He was a massive work martyr. I sat maybe 15–20 feet from him for three years. This was, essentially, our relationship:

  • If he needed something from me, he would email me.
  • When I didn’t respond or produce that thing immediately, he would come over and bark at me in front of others.
  • If I needed something from him and emailed him, he’d never respond.
  • Then I’d go over and ask about it, and he’d tell me “How dare you! I’m busy with a million things!”

Sometimes people email me and they ask me why I write so negatively about modern office jobs. Read the above bullet points. That’s why. That was three years — 36 months! — of my life. If I was a woman, I could have had 2–3 kids in that span. Instead, what did I do? I got dressed down and demeaned by some target-chasing buffoon over how he refused to respond to email.

I know you’re busy. The quest for relevance is real. But at some point, if email is the preferred channel, you gotta respond.

Work email and Slack, other tools

If you read this far, awesome. You might think to yourself: “Well, isn’t email dying off?” That’s a possibility. We all believe strongly in it because of stuff like Slack and Trello and Asana and Basecamp. Problem: all those collaboration tools have a fatal flaw. Second problem: if managers still like / feel comforted by work email, you’re still gonna be using work email. Hierarchy makes things simple, yes?

Your take on work email?

Obviously it’s a scourge. But if you have any good stories on work email and people not responding, leave ’em here.

My name is Ted Bauer. Let’s cut to the chase and work together.