Face-to-Face Be Damned
August 12, 2019 12:59 AM   Subscribe

Was E-mail a Mistake? — From The New Yorker, Cal Newport, August 6, 2019: “...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.”
posted by cenoxo (87 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Let's all meet at the corner coffee shop tomorrow morning to discuss our opinions on this subject.
posted by fairmettle at 1:29 AM on August 12 [16 favorites]


Email (and instant messaging, and fora) are tremendously useful for a variety of tasks, but decision-making/consensus-building isn't one of them (which he seems to think is a fatal flaw) - so we use a combination of methods (ie I know when to pick up the phone versus when to send an email versus when to get up from my desk and walk over to my boss's office). This is not an either/or decision.
posted by Mogur at 1:52 AM on August 12 [23 favorites]


For those of us with profound social anxiety and relatively poor realtime communication skills (owing to, frankly, lack of practice) the normalization of more turn-based methods of communication has been nothing short of a godsend. I am honestly not sure I could hold down a job if more than 10% of my discussions occurred face to face. I spend so much goddamn time pre-planning sprawling conversation trees in advance, rehearsing key phrases for everything from small talk to phone calls to topics that have to be broached in person...and then twenty minutes staring at a wall each evening quietly saying “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry” while wracked with guilt for every tiny awkward flaw or even just sub-optimal exchanges. Multiply that by a factor of ten and I think I’d just resume being a shut-in like I was before I found treatment for my other more severe diagnosis. Email and Slack are what make it possible for me to be part of the workforce, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in that.

Ironically, the author bases this argument on the greater efficacy of computers working synchronously, presumably referring to multi-threading. Only that’s not how threading works: computational work is either broken down into discrete tasks that require no interprocess communication and are batched out to worker threads, or individual threads utilize (mostly hellishly complex) mutex systems to lock out other threads while they work on a chunk of the problem (the computational equivalent of hot potato) with those other threads “spinning” while they wait, or relying on a Boost-library-style futures system that is not structurally dissimilar from the asynchronous communication of emailing a co-worker and telling them “please write me back with the result once you’ve finished”.

My point is: in addition to erasure of neuroatypical people who benefit or nearly require this style of communication (including a significant chunk of the engineering talent enabling the technology he lauds, who are vastly more likely to be on the asperger’s-autistm spectrum than the general population), he’s also failing to accurately portray how interprocess communication in computers works, while describing himself as a computer scientist. I once again feel like I must be missing something here...because when dealing with people that is, for me, usually the case.
posted by Ryvar at 2:06 AM on August 12 [97 favorites]


Cal is something of an expert on productivity, having written several books on the topic. I thought his analysis was pretty spot-on (minus the computer science analogy) and emphasizes what most of us are feeling about always-on forever-feed culture, i.e. we get less actual work done despite having increasingly "powerful" tools because we waste so much time adapting and using those very same tools.

I don't think his critic of modern communication necessarily excludes neuroatypical people from the conversation. He isn't dictating the total abandonment of email as a medium of communication but that we could use it far more skillfully than we currently are.

I would like to read his take on remote work, which necessitates an even more extreme form of asynchronous communication. Lots of startups brag about their remote work culture and how it makes them more innovative but I'm very skeptical.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:51 AM on August 12 [10 favorites]


After more than a decade of remote, asynchronized, globally distributed teams and related work with bursts of fieldtrips, I'm transitioning to a more immersive environment full of real live people. The biggest change is 'pace' - the speed of interaction and communication actually slows down in a way when you're with real people, and the expectations of responses and replies naturally adjust to the other person's thinking style and availability i.e. scheduling meetings etc. This pace shift has me less frazzled and I'm not burning up my cortisol stressing out over every notification being urgent or feeling I'm required to be 'always on' - for instance, if you can see I'm sitting here eating my lunch IRL you're less likely to be expecting me to respond to your chat message ASAP. Dunno if I'm articulating this properly, its only been a week or so yet but the change in perception of time has been immense.
posted by Mrs Potato at 3:25 AM on August 12 [23 favorites]


E-mail is the last holdout of the non-walled-garden Internet. It does not surprise me in the least that "developers of digital-collaboration tools" want to get rid of it.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:44 AM on August 12 [110 favorites]


Was email a mistake?
Was written language a mistake?
Was agriculture a mistake?
Was crawling out of the oceans a mistake?
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:11 AM on August 12 [93 favorites]


I feel like nothing in this article is particularly reflective of how people have used email at any of my jobs. Where is he finding these organizations who use it for consensus decision making?

I haven't typically encountered people using it to make collaborative decisions other than when to have the meeting to make another actual decision. It is great for routing things for non-collaborative approvals by someone in a set hierarchy, but that is a very different thing than group decision making.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:17 AM on August 12 [6 favorites]


some developers of digital-collaboration tools mock the fact that we ever relied on anything so primitive as in-person meetings

In some cases they are so very right. At least half of the meetings I attend could easily have been cleared up with a few emails or by emailing a status update to the person running the meeting rather than being expected to sit on an hour long phone call just to say, "I'm still waiting for the dev team to finish and there is nothing I can do on the project until they complete it."

They're also superior for some things because they create a written record of what was said and agreed to and can be a big help when there's language issues.
posted by Candleman at 4:19 AM on August 12 [20 favorites]


This article completely ignores the fact that programs like Lync, Microsoft Teams, and Slack exist to provide synchronous real-time collaboration.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:26 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


E-mail is the last holdout of the non-walled-garden Internet. It does not surprise me in the least that "developers of digital-collaboration tools" want to get rid of it.


DING DING DING. 🙄
posted by trackofalljades at 4:42 AM on August 12 [17 favorites]


My pet experiment is what would happen to organizations if emails were only delivered every 2 hours (and maybe only once after 6:00pm)?
posted by The Ted at 4:58 AM on August 12 [19 favorites]


Although I do like Cal Newport quite a bit, but I think he's missing some of the implications here.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:58 AM on August 12


Now wait a minute.

He's arguing that there should be more meetings?

More?! Meetings?!!?!?


What? What??!!!???? WHY???????
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:13 AM on August 12 [55 favorites]


We should totally go back to having more meetings. We should also print everything out on hard copy, hire only people we personally relate to, and develop an office culture where if your ass isn’t in your chair, you must not be working.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:27 AM on August 12 [15 favorites]


Flow is law. Synchronous communication breaks flow.
posted by sourcequench at 5:33 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I keep re-reading the article, looking for the genius, and I’m just not seeing it.

Another rather relevant item that the author seems to not take into account is that the world population has more than doubled since 1965. There’s more email because there are 4 billion more people on the planet. More people are doing more stuff.

Also, if we were supposedly shifting to asynchronous communication methods, why would we be checking our inboxes so frequently? The reason people are always looking at their phone is to see information in real time. That’s not asynchronous.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:44 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I also hate when articles propose some new style of doing work and use the CEO as the groundbreaking example. 99.9999% of everyone in the workplace is not the CEO. They not only don’t have the same responsibilities and scheduling requirements, they also damn well don’t have the autonomy to decide how everyone is going to do their job, or the ability to change their tools or their office or their working environment. The CEO gets executive assistants to manage all his meetings and email, and a whole executive board to delegate to, everyone else doesn’t.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:49 AM on August 12 [42 favorites]


Meetings have their place, because human brains are complex things wired for real-time, face-to-face interaction, and behaviors can get skewed when people think of one another as anything but complex human beings. We all know that text of any sort - and video and audio, for that matter - carries much less information and can be filtered in ways that knock things out of proportion. But meetings should be about fifteen minutes long, and human desire for ceremony and significance inevitably stretch them out far beyond their useful duration (just as happens with email, alas).

Newport of course has a laser focus on the idea of solitary productivity, and much of his expertise is in reducing distraction from solitary work. In that mode, his attitude is understandable. The author Mark Salzman wrote much of one book wearing a tin foil skirt so his cat wouldn't get on his lap, and then moved to his car when a telephone lineman, through a window, saw him wearing only the tin foil skirt.

But email opened up a world for me when it became available that I would be loath to relinquish, allowing me, a loquacious hypergraphic introvert, to maintain connections with people at a distance.
posted by Peach at 6:03 AM on August 12 [9 favorites]


Was crawling out of the oceans a mistake?

“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”
posted by Jugwine at 6:11 AM on August 12 [28 favorites]


But meetings should be about fifteen minutes long

I've been in productive two-hour meetings. In my experience, though, most meetings suffer from a poor or insufficiently clear agenda and lack of effective moderation/chairing. There are ways to run good meetings (which includes being intelligent about the goals or purpose of the meeting), but this is apparently a rare and arcane body of knowledge.
posted by eviemath at 6:12 AM on August 12 [15 favorites]


One of my tasks at my current job is to basically be my boss's Siri, and remind him of things.

Whenever I get up and go to his office to remind him, he looks at me funny and says "why are you getting up to talk to me? You can just email me."

But whenever I email him he ignores it because "don't take it personally but emails from clients are more important than yours".

this is one of may reasons why I want to get the hell out of here
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on August 12 [28 favorites]


The problem isn't email. The problem is expectations. If you're expected to respond immediately, or at least in a very short timeframe, email is not made for that. Email is made for non-urgent, time shiftable communication. It's memos and letters. Something that is urgent should be an IM, or a phone call if it's truly important. Nothing sent as an email should die if it's not viewed and responded to inside of a few hours.
posted by SansPoint at 6:27 AM on August 12 [19 favorites]


Empress, that sounds like a perfect use case for Slack.
/remind @boss "don't forget the thing" at 9 am every weekday
posted by emelenjr at 7:07 AM on August 12


I worked in an office in the late 90s without email and it was a pain in the butt to communicate with the team back then. You either had to send a group voicemail out that no one would listen to or print 30 copies of a memo and laboriously put one in each person's mailbox. When you came in each day, you had to check your physical mailbox and grab the stacks of memos, bring them back to your desk and put them in your in-basket.
posted by octothorpe at 7:08 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


Meetings are awful, email is awful. Use both as little as possible.
posted by nikaspark at 7:20 AM on August 12 [10 favorites]


What has become stressful to me, is, being expected to constantly monitor 4 or 5 channels of communication. While working. In an open-plan office. Until I am dead.
posted by thelonius at 7:21 AM on August 12 [36 favorites]


Oh for a magic wand to turn him into something other than the youngish, white, male, straight, cis*, neurotypical*, currently able-bodied*, nice-lookin' person he is and check again how he feels about meetings and scrums.

The CS analogies are really chilling when you translate them to a setting that doesn't involve piles of unthinking circuitry that are unambiguously property. "In a synchronous system, this issue is easily sidestepped: if you don’t hear from [an employee at a meeting], you can assume that [she] has [become useless] and ignore [her] going forward."

*I couldn't easily find any evidence to the contrary, anyhow
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:21 AM on August 12 [7 favorites]


I worked in offices without email. It was different, and as far as work quality of life was concerned, in my opinion it was better.

Formal group meetings actually happened less frequently. What happened much more frequently was that someone would ask questions of people informally. As a result work was far more personable and social. One had far more slack time to get things done. There was a lot more downtime, for instance, when waiting for someone to be free so you could ask a quick question. One had far more autonomy. When you went home from work, work was generally over.

It wasn't long after email and instant messaging that people no longer interacted at all. One would message rather than ask a question of the person sitting next to them. One would run all their decisions by groups for authorization and input. One had less time generally to do the same work as before. One worked generally longer, the line between work time and personal time having disappeared.

It may not have been more productive, but work was far more enjoyable and personally satisfying in my opinion. Also, yes, in personal conversations the focus is on building consensus and getting along. In email, the focus is generally on winning an argument or getting your point of view to prevail. I'm not a luddite, but there are major downsides to most human work interaction taking place through email and messaging.
posted by xammerboy at 7:33 AM on August 12 [6 favorites]


Everything about communication from the telegraph on was a mistake because it created news of the day from far off places. No, I'm not joking. I hate it.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:33 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Empress, that sounds like a perfect use case for Slack.

I use email and text and skype and my walking back there and none of it works i shit you not
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:34 AM on August 12 [7 favorites]


I don't think most workplaces need more meetings. I think many workplaces - especially distributed or remote ones - need more "water cooler" type spaces, like Slack channels for discussing sports, weather, infrastructure,* pets, hobbies, and so on. There's some organizational psych stuff IIRC where interacting without explicit or work-related goals allows people to build stronger relationships and see each other as more fully human, which in turn makes them more effective and willing collaborators.

Of course, almost no "team-building" or mandatory fun type activities are presented this explicitly, and many of them are off-sites at golf courses, rock climbing places, or other terrible, inaccessible environments.

* you might not have many infrastructure nerds in your workplace, but presumably you all use some kind of transportation, and in my opinion moaning about one's accursed commute is most interesting in the context of infra nerdery.
posted by bagel at 7:34 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I'm on team "meetings are theoretically good, but 99% of meetings are bad." But then the argument about email is the same way; it's not email that's the problem, it's the way people use it.

A productive meeting can be used for things that email can't, like determining what people really want and not just what they are putting on paper that they want. And getting things decided at a faster pace than typing an email. But having a meeting is a skill, and it's not equally distrbuted among every human who needs to make decisions or communicate things. And then there's an entire culture of corporate speak and shenanigans designed to make our meetings worse to the benefit of ... i don't even know what.

I have some clients who will not take responsibilty for making a decision if there's absolutely any way out of it. Asking a 'yes' or 'no' question via email will get back a multi-paragraph long essay that just confuses the whole situation further. In a meeting, I can just say, "so... yes or no?" Then I send a follow up email that says, "as we discussed in the meeting, here's what you committed to." I recently started working with a different set of clients who don't have this responsibility issue and we are able to work almost entirely through email.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:38 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I work in what apparently is an office with an older style of communication, which means that people feel free to walk over to my desk and start talking to me without checking to see if I'm on the phone or in the middle of coding or can hear them. My boss gives me fairly complicated assignments orally and I'm expected to jot down and remember the details on the spot. It's one of the greatest communication challenges I have - nobody seems to respect meetings as a place to stay on task and get things done, nobody seems to want to write anything down, and nobody seems to understand the importance of 'do no disturb'.

If this is how things typically worked before email, I love email so much. I will annul my current marriage and marry email. I've worked at places where my boss thought it was okay to text me at midnight and email me at 6am and that was worse, but this is difficult too.

My other issue is that I would like to have the occasional work from home day (plague-infested, inclement weather, ect) and the main reason why I can't do my work from home or anywhere else is that people can't stop by my desk if I'm at home. God forbid anyone send me a direct message or an email.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:40 AM on August 12 [21 favorites]


Different jobs, different tasks, and different people need different communication tools. I need Slack for chat with a history. I need email for stuff that isn't comfortable in a chat. I need Zoom for talking to four different countries at once. I need MetaFilter for filling in time between. I need sleep.
posted by pracowity at 7:43 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


One of the other benefits of face-to-face meetings, especially consistently scheduled meetings like daily standups and 1x1s, is that they create a time for discussion without the feeling of intrusion. There are so many times when someone needs help from someone else but doesn't ask because it doesn't seem important enough. Email demands a response, so it seems like an intrusion. If y'all are already planning to spend 15 minutes talking about work in the morning anyway, it's not intrusive at all to use that 15 minutes to say "btw, can you show me where to find xyz?" I find it's really helpful for new coworkers who aren't sure yet which questions will be percieved as dumb and which are really blockers. They can ask their questions in a sanctioned time and not feel so much pressure.

Then of course it's beneficial to the person who is on the answering end of the questions. They get all the questions bundled up at once rather than getting a notification every time someone is at their desk wondering about something.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:52 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


Btw the big selling point of adopting email for work communication in the nineties was that it was going to save everyone so much time. Everyone would work so much less. There would be far fewer meetings. How's that working out? I don't bring it up to snark. I bring it up to point out how the tool was fundamentally misunderstood when it was first introduced.
posted by xammerboy at 7:59 AM on August 12 [8 favorites]


How's that working out?
Great. Thanks for asking. What, you thought that since it was going to 'save time' that you would get to go home early? No it meant you had to work the same number of hours, you could just spend a good percent of your time at work messing around on the internet.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:15 AM on August 12 [6 favorites]


Btw the big selling point of adopting email for work communication in the nineties was that it was going to save everyone so much time. Everyone would work so much less. There would be far fewer meetings. How's that working out?

I was going to write about how this was a sympton of layoffs/lean development schemes more than technology - that instead of everyone working less, fewer people are now expected to longer hours for less and less actual pay, which is creating the 24/7 culture more than anything else - but then someone walked over to my desk while I was typing to ask me to change something in one of the reports I manage, then walked away before they could specify the report, so I had to chase them down for details. If this is how everything was managed in ye olden days I can't imagine how anyone managed to code anything. The random attention grabs can't be the most efficient way. I refuse to believe it.

(Another boss at the midnight and six am place used to have time blocked on her schedule essentially for office hours - she was guaranteed to be in her office, people were encouraged to call or bring questions at that point, it worked fairly well)
posted by dinty_moore at 8:37 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


so we use a combination of methods (ie I know when to pick up the phone versus when to send an email versus when to get up from my desk and walk over to my boss's

on a recent contract, I came up against somebody who, for whatever reason, was incapable of imagining there might be some value in the occasional simple phone call. That is, a short sharp less than one minute conversation in which a certain flow of information could be efficiently imparted -- and far more effectively than five or so emails spread across more than a day could accomplish (or even messaging, because as has been mentioned, in some instances, you really just need to be in the same room as a person, read their expressions, and all manner of related nuance). Anyway, this person, who was very good at their job in lots of other ways (and who gave no indication of being neuroatypical) proved at least a small disaster and ended up costing the project in question a lot of time and money.

I don't blame them exactly. They're at least a generation younger than me and seem to have grown to maturity with a radically different sense of what can/can't be accomplished with various communication methods/media. I imagine many similar such incidents occurred as we evolved from mail delivery (often four or five times a day) to the telephone (ie: some situations were far more efficiently and effectively dealt with via a few short, sharp notes as opposed to some long winded, nuance overloaded talking).

The problem isn't email. The problem is expectations. If you're expected to respond immediately, or at least in a very short timeframe, email is not made for that.

I'd go a step further and say the problem is when somebody just isn't grasping the expectation, is perhaps incapable of it, because somewhere a long the line they grew overly comfortable with a particular mode of communication that happens to suck for certain situations. And they're not aware of it.

Was email a mistake?
Was written language a mistake?
Was agriculture a mistake?
Was crawling out of the oceans a mistake?


ah yes, the hard work of evolution, and it never stops. Which perhaps counter-intuitively is an area where an older brain may have a leg up over younger ones. Because that brain has already weathered an evolution or two, has seen its once confident cutting edge grasp of how things ARE slip into redundancy more than once, and thus adjusted (hopefully). And more to the point, that older, more experienced brain has seen more than one beautiful tossed with the bathwater. We must be careful with those babies.
posted by philip-random at 8:41 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I guess my reaction was coloured by working in an industry that needs a lot of design decisions made. So when people are saying meetings are better for making decisions, my first thought is design-by-committee. But I guess there are other decisions where there is genuine value from a consensus.
posted by RobotHero at 8:48 AM on August 12


It's an interesting read and the comments here prove the wider point: there is no one form of communication to rule them all and you can't technology your way over the fundamental differences in humans and how they choose to interpret and digest information and how they relate to others.

I try to (learn and then) use what works best for the recipient. It's usually trial and error and sometimes goes against the grain of the "culture" of a place but the best thing I even learned about communication that it's less to do with what you say/write/emote and so much more to do how the person at the other end interprets that.

It's a lot of effort, it still goes wrong sometimes and it makes mass-communication difficult but it really does help to think about the other person at the end of the message as much as if not more than the message itself.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:54 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


on a recent contract, I came up against somebody who, for whatever reason, was incapable of imagining there might be some value in the occasional simple phone call.

We don't have office phones where I work. We do all have personal phones obviously but I don't have anyone's number so I couldn't call a co-worker if I wanted to.
posted by octothorpe at 8:54 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: you can't technology your way over the fundamental differences in humans.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:56 AM on August 12 [8 favorites]


I use email and text and skype and my walking back there and none of it works i shit you not

Perhaps I spent too many of my formative years reading Krazy Kat (weird childhood), but have you considered tying a meeting reminder to a brick and throwing it through his window?It will either prove effective or you won't have to work in a job you hate anymore. #jasonmendoza
posted by stet at 8:57 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


From the article:

Though letter-writing—an asynchronous style of communication—had been a part of commerce for centuries, it was too slow for day-to-day collaboration.

it's worth noting that way back when, before the telephone became ubiquitous, mail delivery often happened four or five times a day. That is, you could send a note to Jim at 8am asking him if he's free for lunch at noon. He could respond by 11am that no, his dog had died (or whatever). So, in gaining the telephone, wonderful in all kinds of ways, we did also lose something, but not forever. It re-emerged as email (sort of), all of which speaks to Marshall McLuhan's Tetrad of Media Effects wherein ...

every medium moves through four stages in relation to how we perceive it, how it affects us, blah blah blah. The key point being that every medium, regardless of how popular it may become, eventually shifts into a phase of obsolescence as something else comes along that supplants it for ... reasons. But the key point here is that no medium (and the particular affect it has) ever vanishes entirely from the culture, but rather, as it moves through its obsolescence, it changes its shape somehow and inevitably cycles back through ...

posted by philip-random at 8:57 AM on August 12 [11 favorites]


The scourge of my existence is the person who says they are too busy for a five minute phone call, because not a single one of those folks ever sorted anything without an email chain with at least four back and forth exchanges, consuming a minimum of twenty minutes' time.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:00 AM on August 12 [7 favorites]


Lots of startups brag about their remote work culture and how it makes them more innovative but I'm very skeptical.

At least in the circles that I'm in, it's pretty widely accepted that remote work is hugely inefficient, at least in terms of wall-clock time. E.g. if you want something done quickly, the gold standard is small number of developers all sitting in the same room, at least to design the thing, and then perhaps retreating to separate offices or whatever to write code.

There are good remote work tools for farming out discrete tasks. Ticketing systems, for instance, are pretty mature and make it easy to keep track of what work items have been assigned to whom, and some of the better tools can aid in the decomposition of big tasks into smaller ones. But those tools are basically garbage when it comes down to actually doing the technical design work, the stuff that generally requires a handful of senior people all standing in front of a whiteboard and throwing out ideas until there's a consensus on a highly abstracted design that can be used to start creating those individually-assignable tasks. Yes, there's video conferencing and "virtual whiteboards". I maintain my assertion that they're garbage compared to the real thing.

Some startups can work around this because all their significant design and architecture work is handled by one person, who's likely as not the CTO. If everything flows downwards from the mind of one singular person, and everyone else is basically just executing on their designs, then it's a lot easier for them to just start chunking out work and farming it out to a remote workforce. But, IMO, this doesn't scale super well.

Startups are willing to do it, and probably even take an efficiency/storypoint hit vs. a colocated team, because there's a huge shortage of talented software engineers and remote work is a really big incentive you can toss around that doesn't cost anything upfront. I don't think startups are touting their remote workforce because they think it's the best way to work or anything, they're touting it because they need engineers desperately enough that they'll deal with the obnoxiousness of remote work in order to get them.

But one pattern you tend to see is a startup with a bunch of remote workers, led by a Benevolent Dictator CTO who does all the significant design activities in their head, who is answerable to no one and needs no consensus-building or coordination, try to scale up and either suddenly come to a screaming halt (sometimes accompanied by the CTO burning out / going crazy), or suddenly switch to a more traditional colocated model in order to make the big scaling push. Or you'll see a startup get acquired and the acquiring company will start to discourage remote work in favor of more traditional arrangements to head off the problem.

I'm not convinced that we know how to make a completely distributed workforce scale very well. (And before anyone comes at me with "but Linux!"—first, it has a Benevolent Dictator answerable to no one at the center of it all, and second, much of the heavy technical lifting is done by very traditionally organized, colocated teams. It's less anarchic than it appears.) It would probably be good if we did, because we're burning a shitload of carbon moving people around for in-person meetings, and we're doing pretty ugly things to the small number of cities where talent is tending to concentrate due to network effects, but I haven't seen much evidence of it. Even the best telepresence technologies are a small step up from 1990s video conferencing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:43 AM on August 12 [9 favorites]


Perhaps I spent too many of my formative years reading Krazy Kat (weird childhood), but have you considered tying a meeting reminder to a brick and throwing it through his window?It will either prove effective or you won't have to work in a job you hate anymore.

I refuse to admit the degree of seriousness with which I contemplated this idea.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:45 AM on August 12 [19 favorites]


I'm now reminded of the one story that was linked here, about how a company had a huge boost in satisfaction when their service technicians would text 90 minutes from showing up, reducing the window of maybe-now-maybe-later.

I think a lot of people who say they don't have time for a "five minute phone call" are really reacting to the level of uncertainty and lack of control and are saying they don't have time rather than admit it's an emotional response.

You don't know for sure a phone call is going to take five minutes when you start it. If they're phoning you, you don't know when they're going to phone you. If you're phoning them, you don't know if they'll answer or you'll go straight to voice mail, and then you're back at not knowing when they'll call back.
posted by RobotHero at 9:53 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


Empress — get a foam brick: tie a note (perhaps a printed email) around it and throw it at them.
posted by cenoxo at 10:02 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


I'm not convinced that we know how to make a completely distributed workforce scale very well.
Maybe not, and it really depends on what you mean by scale, but every single software company in the world that isn't a 10 person start-up has a globally distributed workforce so it may not work 'well' but it's done. I've been in software for 20 years and have only personally met a few of my developers.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:06 AM on August 12


Oh, Cal... Your book Digital Minimalism changed my life, which I say very rarely about books. And now this. I'm not angry, I'm... disappointed.

I'd go crazy if I didn't have email at work. (Totally willing to concede that this may be due entirely to my particular work experience.)
posted by Rykey at 10:10 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


The article really suffers from its implicit false dilemmas: email or no; email or meetings; etc. Like most solutions, I think third ways are the best way to move forward, using all tools at our disposal as best-suited, rather than looking for the new, or old, single tool that will fix multiple—and multi-faceted—problems.

Having said that, I think email is a great tool that needs two important limits in practice (IMHO):

1. Time limitations, i.e. this earlier comment: My pet experiment is what would happen to organizations if emails were only delivered every 2 hours (and maybe only once after 6:00pm)?
When I tell my co-workers that I typically do not check work email after 5:00pm on weekdays, and rarely if at all on weekends, they look so confused that I wonder if I spoke gibberish or not. I absolutely recognize that I’m in a job and field where I have the ability/discretion to do so, and that’s a privilege, but it’s also by intention that I have the kind of job I do, and I’m amazed that nearly all of my colleagues don’t see that they have the same ability to draw clear work/life boundaries. I think every workplace would be improved on multiple fronts if “email time” were prescribed or limited in some way.

Also, as segue, this earlier comment: Email is made for non-urgent, time shiftable communication.

2. Length or word count limitations: this is where I do support memos and meetings. I think email is a great work medium for messages that are, like, under 500 words. Anything longer needs either a formal memo or meeting. I find that I, and many people, avoid even looking at specific emails because I don’t know if it will require 30 seconds or 3 hours to respond. I would be far more timely with email if I knew I could move through 10 new messages in a 30-minute, work-time-limited block.

So, to me the question is less, “which tool?” and more “how do we most effectively use the tools at our disposal?”
posted by LooseFilter at 10:18 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Lots of startups brag about their remote work culture and how it makes them more innovative but I'm very skeptical.

They're innovative in the sense that they don't have to rely on the pool of employees who either already live in commute distance to the office, or at least would be willing to move there.

My example, my team is encouraged to hire in SF or London because it's too expensive to hire for 40 miles south in Cupertino. That's right, SF is seen as the cheaper alternative.

So if you are a company in the South Bay that can't just relocate people to your other offices around the globe, you can just hire great engineers in Denver/Asheville/Chattanooga/wherever and fly them in once a month for meetings.
posted by sideshow at 10:47 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I was in a class at work where someone suggested that our internal "social media space" would one day replace email. I asked how in the world I was supposed to manage my calendar and they didn't have an answer. I am sure there is a calendar widget on the website, but I actually need a popup flashing in my face to make sure I remember to leave my desk. I can put reminders on an email so I get a popup with a reminder to do XYZ. Maybe it could replace the newsletter type things that we all get and scan and then delete.

We have an instant messaging system for immediate talks and email for longer term things. People seem to understand how each is meant to be used, for the most part. I really like being able to send an email where I ask someone to do something or tell me something and they can read the message and get back to me when they have time. If I do get a face-to-face question that I can't answer right then, I will ask them to email me the details and no one feels I am blowing them off. Thankfully, that is the office culture here and I can understand I would find a place with other norms infuriating.
posted by soelo at 10:51 AM on August 12


RIP Betteridge's law of headlines (2009—2019)
posted by Ahmad Khani at 10:55 AM on August 12


I think a lot of people who say they don't have time for a "five minute phone call" are really reacting to the level of uncertainty and lack of control and are saying they don't have time rather than admit it's an emotional response.

It's also a pain in the ass to deal with a phone call in a modern open office because you have to ask them to hold a minute while you get up and leave your cube/table and find something resembling a private space to take a call. Especially if the call requires you to have your computer, then you need to disconnect the 12 dongles your laptop and drag it with you and find a surface to sit it on while you talk. It's five minutes before you can even start talking.
posted by octothorpe at 11:32 AM on August 12 [9 favorites]


I don't mind the phone in instances when I am trying to work through a problem with someone via another method, like email, and we want a phone call to hash something out.

Unfortunately, 90% of phone calls I get are things that should be brought to a team or go through a ticketing system. The phone call allows the caller to avoid other methods of prioritization, and to cherry pick the person they have working on their problem, while minimizing proof that they ever had a problem. My clients often call when they think something is urgent, which is the absolute least secure way to get someone urgently working on your project. It requires me to physically be in the office and to make the decision to pickup. An email is going to get where it's going even if I'm on a bathroom break, and it can be shot off to the whole team so even if I go home sick SOMEONE will see it. And there's proof of what time I got the email, so there's accountability.
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:51 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I resemble phillip-random's comments.

xammerboy I was 29.5 in 1995 when I went from a no email office in advertising and promotions (McCann) to Hewlett Packard with a satellite link for global email + networking.

Looking back, I'd say the best (irony intended) thing for communication up and down the hierarchy and office floors was smoking - you'll meet Vice Presidents and line managers and as I discovered when I started up smoking again after joining HP, that's where the real work talk happened.

Its why even now, though Potato and I have both stopped smoking, we ended up with our nicotine habit alive (gum and mints, respectively) because there'll be times when you simply must step out for a smoke with a group and its not trivial. Its also how we met, on the backstairs, smoking, 10 years ago, though its easily been 3 years since we've had a cigarette together.
posted by Mrs Potato at 12:04 PM on August 12 [10 favorites]


I am in a position of no small amount of responsibility at a London charity that has local borough-group chapters. I've worked hard to help all of the groups in our neighbouring boroughs to strengthen and work together, and my local borough chapter is kind of a sleeper success story in many ways.

One of those ways is pretty simple: we have an amazing long-standing chair who knows how to run a meeting to an agenda. She's a veteran of academic meetings in her field, and is deft at slipping in quickly and giving the floor to exactly the right person at the right time.

I often explain it to people that the chair is the most important role in any meeting is the chair, and the chair's responsibility is to keep people like me from talking too much. I relish this not just because it's not fair that pub-bore blowhards like me can dominate a conversation, but also that it's important that I not be given enough rope to hang myself.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:13 PM on August 12 [7 favorites]


Candleman: At least half of the meetings I attend could easily have been cleared up with a few emails or by emailing a status update to the person running the meeting rather than being expected to sit on an hour long phone call just to say, "I'm still waiting for the dev team to finish and there is nothing I can do on the project until they complete it."

You Are Wrong. :-) Most people don't read their emails carefully, and don't ask follow-up questions via email which would clarify their misunderstandings.

Example: I had someone come over to my desk the other day and start explaining a problem that I knew was already being handled in a ticket. When I asked, "Did you have a chance to reply to H.'s followup question about this?", the response was, "Yeah, but I didn't really understand the question."

They felt so awkward about typing-based interaction that rather than responding, "Sorry, could you explain what you mean?", they instead completely bailed out of the conversation.

A minority of people do know how to have a productive typing-based conversation, and you are lucky if you mostly work with those people. In my experience, it's more common that only one or two people on a team have that ability. If you want to communicate something to the team via email, you're basically depending on those couple of people to read the email and communicate what's important about it to everybody else.
posted by clawsoon at 1:21 PM on August 12 [8 favorites]


Was crawling out of the oceans a mistake?

"In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."

The thing is, to have effective intraoffice conversations, you need offices. This idea that open floor plans improves team communication? BS. No one wants to talk to their coworkers where they're bothering everybody else in earshot (not to mention possibly spreading around information or opinions they don't want the whole world to know). Lawyers still chat because we can go to each other's offices, sit down, and say, "Hey, there's this thing on that case..." Maybe we're especially sensitive to the desirability of this because every email with the opposing side is a nightmare of wordsmithing and testing the very limits of good faith.
posted by praemunire at 1:22 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


Isn't the problem just that work is bad?
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:42 PM on August 12 [14 favorites]


Email as a protocol is a bad protocol because all the reward is on the sender and all the burden is on the responder.

Email truly sucks and needs to go away.
posted by nikaspark at 1:47 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


(also I'm aware that email is like 11 protocols, but the original protocol, SMTP, underlies the whole mess and all the other protocols are a patch on the original protocol sucking)
posted by nikaspark at 1:49 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]



We should totally go back to having more meetings. We should also print everything out on hard copy, hire only people we personally relate to, and develop an office culture where if your ass isn’t in your chair, you must not be working


...this is my current work situation. it is awful.

(i know you were being sarcastic.)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:36 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Most people don't read their emails carefully, and don't ask follow-up questions via email which would clarify their misunderstandings.

I wonder if there's a generationgap beween peopl who cut their teeth on pine and usenet versus people who have always used outook ad other progams that wont even reply correctly
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:43 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


If email goes away, how do I tell people to stop using Folder X and start using Folder Y? Do you want me to put that in a chat/slack/IM? What about the people who aren't at work that day? How do I keep that conversation separated from the one about the doughnuts in the break room and the one about Hawaiian shirt Fridays?
posted by soelo at 2:59 PM on August 12


Was teaching sand to do math a mistake?
posted by straight at 3:21 PM on August 12 [10 favorites]


Email is just idle small-talk that keeps a record of itself. It's no different to listening to a mad person on a bus, and we've been doing that for yonks.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:22 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there's a generationgap beween peopl who cut their teeth on pine and usenet versus people who have always used outook ad other progams that wont even reply correctly

Pine and Pico is the best end-user-friendly software, really.
posted by nikaspark at 3:53 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Born in 1980. Remember Sendmail config well enough to heartily agree that SMTP is bullshit. Remember Postfix and QMail and not wanting to die anymore. Remember discovering nano/pico and “oh cool somebody finally ported MS-DOS Edit to Linux!” and the look of sheer horror/disgust on the elder sysadmin’s face.

Like, I don’t disagree with you that SMTP is a pile of shit, and I’m familiar enough (or was at one point) to state that with some conviction. But I also agree with Ralston above that yeah it probably is the last vestige of pre-walled-garden Internet, and I’d prefer to keep it around purely so that channel still exists, occupying the considerable middleground between Slack and the multipage memo.
posted by Ryvar at 4:33 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


This is all fascinating to me - I talk to people on my mobile or Skype, I meet with people in person or on Skype or on the phone, I message people all day long and I have to email. I also coach people on skype because you can screen share and I can actually see what they are looking at and even take control and show them what I want. Time was you had to sit next to somebody to do that.

What never ceases to amaze me is that it is our trainees who really struggle with this way of working. They can go for years before somebody explains to them how to use calendars to find time-slots for meetings, that people may need a dial in number even if you invite them to a Skype meeting because they may be travelling, how to screen share, that there is such a thing as Onenote, which they can open from their diary invite to minute meetings and then file the minutes and be done. In fact they bring multiple hard copy notebooks when you take them to a client meeting and are somewhat shocked when you just bring your laptop. And then they wonder why they have to spend so much time writing up things...or they lose their notes or can’t read them or missed so much of what was said that they have to ask for mine and the partner’s notes (the two most sr people who somehow are the only people on the team able to take notes electronically)?!

For me the most significant change in how I work now, compared to even five years ago, would be that I now have fast internet everywhere I go and that allows me to meet with, collaborate and coach without sitting next to people. Is that always ideal, no. But my work is not office based and I can only travel so much. Email is indeed getting less important for most things. And a lot of the time I end up calling people about emails so they can’t ignore them/I can be sure we’re all on the same page.

But yes, you do need to have space to talk to people. Some open plan offices have successfully created spaces to facilitate that but a lot haven’t. And where they haven’t, as the visiting consultant who gets to sit wherever there is space, I’ve been known to have calls in stairwells and corridors, perching my laptop on windowsills but sometimes there is simply nowhere to go, especially if you need your laptop.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:37 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


Where I've worked, a problem with e-mail usage is the idea it's the "common denominator" for all things communication, so you get all sorts of automated notifications, health checks, memos CCd to entire teams where you're only tangentially related, and emails used as a more permanent store of record or file sharing. So inevitably you get 100+ emails/day and spend a good deal of time creating Outlook filters to get rid of all the noise. But hope the filters aren't too broad that something important slips through the cracks.

My God, please use email as mail and keep notifications in a separate system.
posted by hexaflexagon at 4:58 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


In our office, the rule is that email is not suitable for anything which is or could become a dialogue. It is NOT a dialogue medium, and if you want to stand on top of a rooftop and shout at the universe, email should be your first choice. Otherwise pick up the phone.

With regard to meetings, echoing rum-soaked's value of the chair, that is the key factor in getting things sorted. chelseatroy.com gives a model for a moderated meeting, which takes some of the onus off the chair to keep things on track, and I have started to use that approach for, you guessed it, a volunteer organisation.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:01 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Being in a virtual team means most of our idle chatter is in a team skype text chat, which suits my brain perfectly. With the size of our org being in the tens of thousands, hierarchical email lists and shared group boxes is the only way to disseminate technical information effectively; reinforced by cascaded meetings for particularly important stuff.

Which only leads to real irritation that some people's first instinct is to call me for technical questions without even a courtesy IM to prepare me. Even taking an entire minute to answer doesn't dissuade them.

So: email <—> cold dead hands.
posted by Marticus at 10:42 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


In my day we just used email to forward erectile dysfunction ads to Nigerian princes with embarrassingly large amounts of cash. It's become somewhat useful now?
posted by Chitownfats at 1:19 AM on August 13


"Some open plan offices have successfully . . ."

By definition, whatever words come after that are false.
posted by nirblegee at 4:46 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]


Recently, I got to train a young person on our database, and it was SO nice to teach a native computer user, who didn't have to be talked through mouse clicks and the like. She was probably born after I started using computers in '93.

I gotta go lie down.
posted by corvikate at 6:36 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


The same author had a very similar article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year (cached version here if you can't access it). His argument was narrower, and (unsurprisingly) aimed mainly at academics. Have to say I found that version a bit more plausible, and also more open about how radical the idea is.
posted by rollick at 6:37 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


Thoughts:

Email inboxes are todo lists that are randomly assembled by other people. There's no way around that other than blocking out time to address emails in batches so you're not at the mercy of literally everyone all the time.

Should inboxes that support threaded emails should have the new emails on existing threads sorted by the send time of the original email. That way long-running threads with new messages get sorted at the top and get dealt with first (if they're long chains, they're probably higher priority.

Threaded emails should've been designed to have a meta-subject line that would be called "topic." that way subject lines can be updated to useful summaries without breaking the thread.

It has been very rare for me to work with folks functionally literate enough to respond to emails with more than one (1) single question. Usually they don't read whatever background sentence I add to get context. Eg., "should we do this or that?" gets responded to with a reply of "yes."

There's a highly overlapping Venn diagram circle of the people in my previous item and the people who think smashing through emails is better than solving the problems that the emails are about. Thereby generating more emails for themselves in the long run, which they think is your fault.

Anything that proposes an if/then choice for the email recipient goes poorly. If I spend ten minutes formatting the options to have an inverted pyramid/the actual choice to be made in the first 3-4 words, highlighting + bolding + capitalizing the words IF, EITHER, OR, CHOOSE ONE (1) OF THE FOLLOWING, AND ...until it looks like a ransom note with Boolean operators, I actually do get a reply with one of the choices selected. But then they ruin it with an additional sentence that reveals they don't understand why they were presented with a choice in the first place, and I have to go take a walk around the building.

If I am forced to have a meeting with someone because they are unable to work with emails, even when it's one of the straightforward, non-pressing issues for which email is ideal, you better believe I'm sending an email afterwards anyways, summarizing my understanding of the decisions reached in that meeting. Not that it stops them being mad at me for doing what I put in writing that I was going to do (they forgot, or heard different, or anything else that would have been instantly solved by them reading my short bullet points).

Luckily, these annoyances aren't any worse than, say, open office plans. Which is to say that the faster you start believing humanity default setting is to act foolish whenever some slightly wiser option takes a modicum of effort, the faster you'll feel better. After all, you're a human, and wasn't it foolish of you to expect better of our bunch of jumped-up nude apes?

but seriously, I have always felt better when I advocate for the better course of action yet stopped caring (so to speak) whether things would actually work out that way. It's not quite giving up on humanity, but I do usually call it. Helps to blow off steam, bolster my curmudgeonly reputation and feel better. ha ha ha ha
posted by wires at 12:45 PM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I think this thread is evidence that one of the big problems with email is that nobody can agree on what email really is, or what it's primarily for. Is it for official memoranda? One-to-one technical discussions? One-to-many broadcasts? A way for automated systems to tell you when something, somewhere, has programmatically shit the bed and needs your attention?

One person's ideal use case is likely to be someone else's absolute hell.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:50 PM on August 13 [4 favorites]


my current workplace relies on email HEAVILY. my team uses it to communicate with marketing organizations about outstanding requirements their clients need to meet in order to contract with us. i'd say... about... 60% of the contacts i send email to understand why i can't accept their clients' contracts.

i internally groan when i see a 1950s or earlier birthdate on a client contract because that means if they screwed up the contract.... they will NOT READ THE EMAILS their marketing organization sends them

fortunately we have another team with excellent phone skills who will explain in small words how they can fix the contract.
posted by lineofsight at 5:24 PM on August 13


We recently made the switch from Office to Suite at work. On any given day, I'd say at least 95% of the email I receive is a calendar invitation or a notification from some system that's already notifying the necessary folks in a Slack channel.
posted by emelenjr at 6:35 PM on August 13


Faint of Butt: "Was agriculture a mistake?"

Agriculture actually is often called out as having been a mistake.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:19 PM on August 13


Faint of Butt: "Was agriculture a mistake?"

Agriculture actually is often called out as having been a mistake.


“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.” - Douglas Adams
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:56 AM on August 14


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