What Does Email Tell Us About Our Values?

So what does email tell us about our values as a society and as individuals? According to Beth Kolko in her blog post “Recreating Email“, “Email values the always available. It values immediacy of online-ness. It values bulk addressing and archiving. And I blame it for being the major reason everyone runs around these days saying how busy they are.”

I think she’s spot on. The problem is, however, larger than email. There is often an expectation in most modern corporate cultures that we should be accessible for work in the evenings and on weekends, which I believe is deteriorating our well-being. It’s almost impossible to take a “real” vacation anymore because of our workaholic culture. Here’s how we can fix the email problem, and consequently, part of the larger problem, according to Beth.

Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.

I absolutely love her idea, but I have a few other thoughts to add. What if email was only delivered twice a day on work email accounts? What if offices had “email free” Fridays? These policies could potentially give people longer periods of uninterrupted creative time in the office which is the key to doing “real” work for creators. Maybe then workers wouldn’t have to stay late. Obviously there may be exceptions to my idea, especially if a person’s job was mostly to communicate. If there was a pressing matter for a creator, however, colleagues could always use the phone or walk over to someones desk. I think email is a great tool, but it’s unfortunately the most abused means of communication in the workplace. To that point, I think, paradoxically, most people will actually get more work done in a culture that avoids hyper communicating on email.

Scott Berkun offers up some interesting insight on the subject in his post “How To Fix Email: A Radical Proposal“.