PathDoc/Shutterstock.com

Is Email Bad for Office Culture?

Overflowing inboxes are wrecking productivity and making people feel guilty.

Sometime in the past 20 years, people soured on email. Culturally, it went from  delightful to burdensome, a shift that’s reflected in the very language of the inbox. In the 1990s, AOL would gleefully announce, “You’ve got mail!” Today, Gmail celebrates the opposite: “No new mail!”

So what happened to email? What happened to us?

These are some of the questions that come up in the new technology podcastCodebreaker, the first season of which is fixated on the question, “Is it evil?”

“In some ways, [email] is like technology that was built when the world was new, yet we still use it all the time,” Codebreaker’s host, Ben Brock Johnson, told me. “There are some real tensions that come from that, that come from the fact that it’s this free thing that anybody can send to anybody... and we can all send as many as we want.”

All of that is, theoretically, what makes email great, too. “You can't kill email! It’s the cockroach of the Internet,” Alexis Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic last year, “and I mean that as a compliment. This resilience is a good thing.”

“Email is the last great unowned technology,” said the Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain in the first episode of Codebreaker, “and by unowned I mean there is no CEO of email... it’s just a shared hallucination that works.”

And while email may work, technically, there’s a profound sentiment—in tech circles, especially—that there’s something deeply wrong with the way people email today. Maybe not surprisingly, most email is “total garbage,” Johnson says, and that’s the stuff that doesn’t even make it to your inbox. Spam filters areactually pretty good, so this virtual garbage-pile isn’t the real problem. The thing about email that bogs people down is the sorting, and responding, the unsubscribing, the reaching out, the circling back.

People are, clearly, consumed by their inboxes. On average, people check their email about 77 times per day, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. (On the high end, people checked their inboxes 373 times a day.) “The more email people do, the lower is their assessed productivity,” Mark said in the podcast. “[and] the lower is their positive mood at the end of the day.”

Mark also notes a psychological disconnect between the writing of an email and the receiving of one, a paradox that Johnson told me he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about since: Reading email is correlated with stress, actually typing and sending email is not.

“That, to me, was a totally eureka moment,” Johnson said. “Where Gloria Mark says it feels good to send email, but it feels bad to receive. That has changed my behavior. I have been more thoughtful about how I send email: Why am I sending this email? Is this the most direct way to deal with whatever I am trying to deal with?” 

“I am also really bad at managing my own email,” Johnson added. “I am abysmal. I have 12,069 unreads in my gmail right now. People look at that and they get panic attacks on my behalf.”

Several studies have found email hurts productivity and makes people feel bad. “I just think we have to rethink email, and even redesign the way email is used,” Mark said in Codebreaker’s first episode.

She’s not alone in that assessment. But what would a reboot of this nature even look like? And what would it mean for email’s cultural standing? (These are some of the questions I'm exploring for an upcoming story, and it's clear already that they have fascinating, if incomplete, answers.)

Already there are alternatives, or at least complements, to the inbox-outbox cycle: Various private messengers and chat platforms like Slack have been described as email slayers, or at least means of chipping away at its hold on people. Teenagers barely email one another. Just 6 percent of them reported sending daily emails in a 2011 Pew survey. (A time when, it should be noted, Snapchat was in it infancy and platforms like YikYak and Vine didn’t even exist yet.)

“Email is not evil,” said Sabri Ben-Achour, a reporter for Marketplace, in theCodebreaker debut. “We are evil. Email dismantles the barriers and the filters that we have erected to contain our evil selves.”

Even if email’s not outright evil, it does seem to be broken in some way. And if we’re the ones who broke it, it will be up to us to fix it, too.

(Image via PathDoc/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.