Was e-mail a mistake?
Cal Newport begins by telling us for most of human history, messaging was synchronous by default i.e. in an office or a factory people who needed to be told something had to meet the message giver face to face. As a result, for much of the 20th century “the push to create what communication specialists call “asynchronous messaging” in the workplace. An interaction is said to be synchronous when all parties participate at the same time, while standing in the same room, perhaps, or by telephone. Asynchronous communication, by contrast, doesn’t require the receiver to be present when a message is sent. I can send a message to you whenever I want; you answer it at your leisure.”
Initially, offices used message slips to make messaging asynchronous. However, as message slips started piling up on people’s desks, the limitations of this messaging medium became apparent. In the midst of this chaos, arrived e-mail: “Then, in the nineteen-eighties, a far more convenient technology arrived, in the form of desktop computers connected through digital networks. As these networks spread, e-mail emerged as the killer app for bringing asynchronous communication to the office. To better understand this shift, I talked to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the impact that computer technology has had on the workplace. “I can show it to you,” she told me, when I asked about the spread of e-mail. She showed me a data table she had constructed, which summarized the results of office-time-use studies from 1965 to 2006. The studies can be divided into two groups: before e-mail and after. In the studies conducted before e-mail, workers spent around forty per cent of their time in “scheduled meetings,” and twenty per cent engaged in “desk work.” In those conducted after e-mail, the percentages are swapped.
With the arrival of practical asynchronous communication, people replaced a significant portion of the interaction that used to unfold in person with on-demand digital messaging, and they haven’t looked back. The Radicati Group, a technology-research firm, now estimates that more than a hundred and twenty-eight billion business e-mails will be sent and received daily in 2019, with the average business user dealing with a hundred and twenty-six messages a day. The domination of asynchronous communication over synchronous collaboration has been so complete that some developers of digital-collaboration tools mock the fact that we ever relied on anything so primitive as in-person meetings.”
However, life is not as simple as it looks. Newport now introduces a twist in the story: “As e-mail was taking over the modern office, researchers in the theory of distributed systems—the subfield in which, as a computer scientist, I specialize—were also studying the trade-offs between synchrony and asynchrony. As it happens, the conclusion they reached was exactly the opposite of the prevailing consensus. They became convinced that synchrony was superior and that spreading communication out over time hindered work rather than enabling it….
Investigating asynchronous communication using a mathematical approach known as algorithm theory, they [computer scientists] discovered that spreading out communication with unpredictable delays introduced new complexities that were difficult to reduce. While the business world came to see synchrony as an obstacle to overcome, theorists began to realize that it was fundamental for effective collaboration…It turns out that asynchrony makes coördination so complicated that it’s almost always worth paying the price required to introduce at least some synchronization.”
So why is any of this of interest to you and me? It is because Cal Newport goes on to explain that the current paradigm of emails, phone calls and instant messaging that we use to work is actually neither efficient (from the perspective of time management) nor very effective (in terms of the quality of decision making): “Anyone who works in a standard office environment has firsthand experience with the problems that followed the enthusiastic embrace of asynchronous communication. As the distributed-system theorists discovered, shifting away from synchronous interaction makes coördination more complex. The dream of replacing the quick phone call with an even quicker e-mail message didn’t come to fruition; instead, what once could have been resolved in a few minutes on the phone now takes a dozen back-and-forth messages to sort out. With larger groups of people, this increased complexity becomes even more notable. Is an unresponsive colleague just delayed, or is she completely checked out? When has consensus been reached in a group e-mail exchange? Are you, the e-mail recipient, required to respond, or can you stay silent without holding up the decision-making process? Was your point properly understood, or do you now need to clarify with a follow-up message? Office workers pondering these puzzles—the real-life analogues of the theory of distributed systems—now dedicate an increasing amount of time to managing a growing number of never-ending interactions.”
Furthermore as we frequently check our email or our messages, our attention spans are blown to bits with consequential impact on our depth of thinking: “Last year, the software company RescueTime gathered and aggregated anonymized computer-usage logs from tens of thousands of people. When its data scientists crunched the numbers, they found that, on average, users were checking e-mail or instant-messenger services like Slack once every six minutes. Not long before, a team led by Gloria Mark, the U.C. Irvine professor, had installed similar logging software on the computers of employees at a large corporation; the study found that the employees checked their in-boxes an average of seventy-seven times a day. Although we shifted toward asynchronous communication so that we could stop wasting time playing phone tag or arranging meetings, communicating in the workplace had become more onerous than it used to be. Work has become something we do in the small slivers of time that remain amid our Sisyphean skirmishes with our in-boxes.”
So what is the way forward? What is the solution? “Isolated examples of well-planned, structured synchrony are starting to emerge in the business world. Many of these experiments come from the tech sector…Recently, the founder and CEO of a publicly traded technology company told me that he spends at most two or three hours a week sending and receiving e-mails; he has replaced most of his asynchronous messaging with a “regular rhythm” of meetings, which allows him to efficiently address issues in real time…
Similarly, the software-development firm Basecamp now allows employees to set professor-style office hours: if you need to talk to an expert on a given subject, you can sign up for her office hours instead of shooting her an e-mail. “You get that person’s full, undivided attention,” Jason Fried, the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., said, on the podcast Curious Minds. “It’s such a calmer way of doing this.” If something is urgent and the expert’s office hours aren’t for another few days, then, Fried explained, “that’s just how it goes.”
At many technology companies, a popular alternative to hyperactive asynchronous messaging is a collaboration framework called Scrum, popular among software developers. Teams of programmers using Scrum divide their efforts into “sprints,” each focussed on introducing a related set of features to a piece of software. During these sprints, which last from one to four weeks, the team meets once a day. Everyone gets a chance to speak. Team members describe what they accomplished yesterday and what they’re going to work on today; if they think they’ll need help, they let the right people know. In classic Scrum, colored notes pinned to a board are arranged to publicly reflect these commitments, so that there’s no ambiguity about the plan. These meetings are often held standing up, so that no one feels tempted to bloviate, and they typically last for around fifteen minutes. The idea that a quarter of an hour of structured synchrony is enough time to enable a full day of work might sound preposterous, but, for more than twelve million software developers, it seems to be working. Many people are surprised when they first learn about the effectiveness of Scrum…”