More interesting to me is why businesses would have an “email culture” at all. Previous companies I have worked at have had some horrible email habits. And some of the biggest businesses in the world do too. It is common.
Maybe it does not need to be “fixed.” I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that with my own company—Primeloop—I was not willing to create another email culture. I did not want my team to have to deal with it, and I sure as hell did not want to deal with it myself.
So I banned email. That solved things real quick.
Ok, we didn’t exactly ban email. We still have accounts, primarily for external communication. But, people are also more than welcome to leave them on for notifications from internal apps.
Email gets used for tons of things it isn’t good for. So here is how we replace it:
Asking People Questions
Email should not be used to ask people questions. Whose responsibility is it to remember whether the question has been answered? How long before I bug you again for your answer? Why don’t you think my question is good enough to answer? Inherent in this usage of email, is the creation of a culture where no one has to work as long as I can push off my work on you to answer my email.
At Primeloop, we have a couple different ways to ask each other questions, but there is a higher/deeper level thing that influences the best space for the question. Is the question related to ongoing work on something? Is it a request for general feedback from multiple people? Are you asking someone to make a decision for you? Are you blocked by needing an answer? etc. So, I’ll get back to this one below.
Email should not be used to share information. Especially if that information is a resource that might be useful again in the future. Most email (Hi there gmail, I know you’re better than everyone else) is not very searchable. So, it is hard to rediscover the information in the future. And what about all the people who are coming and going from a company. Just because you weren’t here 5 months ago doesn’t mean that some internal knowledge wouldn’t be helpful to you today.
At Primeloop, we use hackpad to document, store, and get feedback on information that needs to be shared out to everyone on the team, or groups within the company. And, we indicate in the document itself whether we’re looking for feedback/edits/review/input from everyone or whether the information stands and just needs to be processed.
Passing around Files
Email should not be used for passing around files. I won’t even get in to how silly it is to have duplicate and multiple versions of files floating around.
Asking for Feedback
Email should not be used to ask for feedback (on documents, on ideas, on content, on strategy, etc.) This really starts to get into the politics and games and positioning that Hunter was describing in his plea to kill cc and bcc lines. Not only is the feedback generally poorly incorporated into the original information, but the responses and forwards and bccs and politics of the whole experience make a mess that is nearly impossible to detangle even when everyone is on their best behavior.
At Primeloop, we use hackpad to share and collaborate around the feedback requested, and the input is incorporated immediately into the document/idea/strategy/content etc. And since this information is visible to everyone on the team, amazing input can come from unexpected corners of the business. People are not their job titles. Which means they have valuable input from other areas of interest, experience and passion. This should be encouraged not discouraged.
Email should not be used as a todo list. Actual work should exist outside of an inbox. People send over all kinds of other work for other people to do, while staring down their own insane inbox, and wonder why no one ever gets back to them with that list of 3 things I need from you. When this gets combined with any of the other anti-patterns for email it gets really messy. In other words, an email starts out as a request for feedback, but somewhere along the way someone on the thread throws in a random sentence telling someone else on the thread that they should do X to help move something forward that the request for feedback triggered. Good luck finding that “task” again after the email thread takes two more turns and another file gets attached, and then gets forwarded to someone else’s boss.
At Primeloop, anything that can and should be considered “done” at some point, goes into trello. This not only impacts email, but even translates over into our usage of slack (team chat) and hackpad (wiki). Before poking anyone else to let them know you need something from them, the task should first exist as a card in trello. Then, it is always extremely clear whether something is considered “waiting”, “in-progress”, or “done”. And, since we are all assigned to these various tasks at different stages along their progress, it is extremely clear to me at any given time exactly what I need to do, and what other people need me to do to unblock them.
Actually, this is one thing that email is actually good for. Which is why anyone on the team is more than welcome to leave notifications on.
Personally, I keep notifications off in email as well, because I have all of mine pushing to slack.
Reporting to Others
Email, can be used for more private communication, and reporting to others on your progress. But how much valuable information is locked up in all of these private threads?
At Primeloop, we have found that it is motivational for everyone in the company to be able to see what everyone else is working on at any given time. It’s helpful for two different reasons: (1) If I see someone diving in on their next task, it can trigger a reminder that I had some thoughts that might be interesting for them to consider while working on that task. (2) When I see other people having an awesome day, it inspires me to crank harder. Plus, our stand-ups are much faster since we can skip that whole section.
p.s. I ended up having a really fun conversation about this story with the folks over at the RocketshipFM podcast. You can listen over here.
I am building Primeloop.com in Las Vegas with an amazing team. If email at your current job makes you sad and angry, come join us. ;)