Killing The Hydra: E-mail Responsiveness Rears Its Ugly Heads

Remember when audio CDs and portable CD players first came out?

In the 1970s, being able to play Michael Jackson on a compact disc was an amazing accomplishment. Until, that is, the following decade when people started to carry on their shoulders large boom boxes blaring Madonna and Daft Punk in public places.

Remember when the mobile phone became accessible to the masses?

This century, men and women could finally abandon those rolls of dimes, quarters, and other phone-booth change. Today, people call their friends anytime from a phone that fits in their pocket, which is why movie theatres have become insufferable with loud ringtones and hushed voices answering, “Hey! Yah, I’m in a movie…”

There’s always a point when a good thing is ruined. The most recent innovation victim? Take, for example, e-mail communication.

Professionals around the world, with the invention of the Internet, could suddenly communicate instantaneously, comprehensively, and cost-free.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this, too, to spoil.

These days, e-mail has become a burden. It’s available on that amazing smartphone you cherish (along, thank goodness, with music Mp3s and earbuds). It’s available on your office computer and your laptop at home.

This is why, when an important client e-mails at three in the morning, lawyers are certainly used to waking up to a *ping*. And, when a firm partner calls, attorneys have no excuse for not answering their Blackberry.

Being responsive and accessible all day long detracts from your quality of life. It certainly tips the scale of the work-life balance in favor of work.

Furthermore, the need to be responsive and quick with an e-mail reply has made the workplace inefficient. Hundreds, thousands of e-mails each day contain nothing but redundancy, misunderstandings, and cute photos of cats.

“As our inboxes have become more demanding, we have all become less responsive — because we get so many messages it’s hard to keep up. But the harder it is to keep up, the more messages (‘I just thought I’d send another email asking if you got my first two emails’) we send,” writes Sarah Green for the Harvard business Review Blog.

“The problem with ‘responsiveness’ is that email then becomes like a hydra — cut off one head (answer one email) and you spawn nine more,” continues Ms. Green. “The more responsive you are, the more email you receive, and the more responsive you need to be.”

In the mythical story of the Hydra, Heracles calls upon his nephew Iolaus for help. Together, Hercules chops off the head of the Hydra while Iolaus cauterizes the stumps.

Luckily, for e-mail, the solution doesn’t have to be so gruesome. It does, however, involve cooperation.

Before you answer any e-mail, take the following four steps:

  1. Identify the embedded questions (Are there question marks in this e-mail?)
  2. Assess the urgency (Was a time frame or date mentioned? How long can you reasonably wait to respond so as to gather all the necessary information?)
  3. Answers all questions or forward appropriate resources to find them (Do you need to actually find the answers to the questions or can you just attach the appropriate documents and point to third-party sources?)
  4. Respond in 5 lines or less with one to three attachments (Can you answer via e-mail or would phone/in-person conferencing be better?)

Ensure your entire team does the same, and—hopefully—the culture of “responsiveness” will die away like Hera’s Hydra.

For once, let’s not—as professionals—ruin a good thing.

E-mail remains the perfect medium for brief, quick office communication. With the four aforementioned steps, we can keep it that way.

-WB

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