There was an article in HBR earlier this week by Cal Newport that proposes an alternative to email in the form of 'Office Hours'. As an analyst covering email technology, collaboration and the associated behavioral change, there are several concerning factors associated to the Office hours concept. After searching for a way to contact Newport and finding that he does not have any social media presence, just a contact for PR and honorarium, I decided to write an open letter addressing these concerns.
In a few short years, our relationship with technology has profoundly changed. The confluence of two major technology trends: the availability of cloud applications and marketplaces and the ubiquity and availability of mobile devices, has enabled us to connect with employees, customers, partners and suppliers across many different modes, email, presence, SMS, app messaging, social media and so on. I do agree with Newport when he says we need some way to coordinate and connect with colleagues but I would take this further and suggest that organizations need to consider a more social and mobile-enabled workflow to augment existing business processes. There are some other areas that should be addressed as part of this discussion:
Getting Closer to Customers
Connecting with colleagues is only part of why we communicate with email. It is the most ubiquitous of communication modes so has become the common denominator when connecting external conversations with internal business processes. In IDC survey research conducted last year, we looked at Line of Business users across Sales, Marketing, HR and Service, and asked how often they communicate with external customers. 34% have daily communication with external customers and 21% weekly. That is more than 50% of users who communicate outside the corporate domain every week. There were only 22% of respondents who never communicated with external customers.
If we think about our experience as customers, we also know that the way we transact has changed. We look online, check recommendations, get items delivered to our door, and can even tweet a picture of a pizza for delivery when we are hungry. In order to deliver against the expectations of our customers, we need our employees to have alignment in processes, self service capabilities and seamless collaboration with other colleagues. That seamless collaboration is critical and it might involve a number of different collaboration modes, one being email. The important point here is that every organization will choose the combination of tools they believe will optimize the experience of the customer. If they have a culture that architects a great experience for the employee in order to deliver to the customer, fantastic. If they architect a disconnected collaboration experience for the employee, those employees have a hard time but ultimately, it is customers who suffer. One of my favorite quotes from Phil Libin, highlights this point well “Any tool that favors the people who are inside your network or organization is on the wrong side of history”.
Email is a Behavior
One of the most interesting inquiry calls I have taken in my career was with a user in a large US bank. He wanted to know if there was a way to save all of the windows he had opened when his Outlook client crashed. He managed his day by opening all the emails from clients that were important and that he needed to respond to. The number of windows he had open was enough to crash the application every time. He was using email as a proxy for a task management system. Many of us wake in the morning, check our phone and decide task priority based on the situation of the inbox. It is not wrong to do that, it is simply how we behave. In order to change that behavior, users need to rely on other modes. If you have a task management system you prefer, great. I like Trello. If you have another way of managing your workload in a tool like Slack that is great too. It really just depends on the individual.
There are plenty of options when it comes to email technology. Updates in Outlook 2016 offer some basic productivity hacks, like being able to attach recently opened items to a message or the newer mobile update that makes it easier to offer meeting times for scheduling. There are also other options like IBMs Verse product that has redesigned the email UI and lets you see recently messaged people as avatars and has a social task management capability at the bottom of the screen. All these tech updates are changing behavior around email in small and incremental ways. Overtime those changes will have filtered across to the way we work and should offer some efficiency in email use.
Another major factor in how our behavior will change is automated assistance. With the advent of support from simple cognitive systems we will be able to eliminate much of the busy work we associate with emails. Responses to receipt of a message or simple scheduling could all be managed by cc'ing the cognitive systems to schedule for you or the system recommending an action based on previous behaviors. The basics of this are around the corner in our traditional email systems but in Slack, bots rule. There is a bot for almost anything in Slack. That means not only can we achieve incremental efficiencies in email productivity but we can have bots that help do our expenses or find out if our coworkers are happy or not. In-application experiences are critical to prevent context switching and enable heightened focus on a task so we will see more tools like Slack entering the market. However, because of the embedded business processes and behaviors associated to email, it will be around for the foreseeable future.
Hours Worked and Labor Productivity
The US Department of Labor statistics on hours worked vs output add great color to this discussion. The impact of the labor force on overall GDP (output) is increasing but not because we are being more productive in every industry. We are simply working more. Since 2011, the number of hours worked by all those in the US labor force has out numbered Labor Productivity. In addition, hours worked by the labor force continues to rise aggressively while labor productivity remains in a plateau. Adding to this, there will be more millennials in the workforce in 2020. However, there will also be double the number of workers over the age of 55 in the workforce. Yes, I said double. This means organizations will also need to offer some training and support for all those workers millennial or otherwise in order to maintain and maximize productivity.
Increasingly agile business models are shifting the way we do work and the way we think about work but we have not yet found the formula that enables us to be more efficient and in turn more productive. The technology sector has not (yet) made a dent on the labor productivity figures, even though we have a vast array of collaboration and communication to support us. Much of the shift to new technology is happening gradually and incrementally but that may not be fast enough because behavior change can take some time unless there is a compelling event to do so. Only a handful of companies from the Fortune 500 list in the 1950s are still in business today. The pace of change from a customer experience standpoint can only accelerate changes to that list. The kinds of companies that are successful in the future will have not only mastered employee productivity, satisfaction and retention but also customer, partner and supplier experiences.
When thinking about heightened customer expectations, individual personal productivity needs, and the fact that we are all working more, it doesn’t mean we should "post a schedule of two or three stretches of time during the day when he or she will be available for communication". That is simply untenable for most. It means that both organizations and users need to be more open and flexible with how work gets done. They also need to be open to feedback across all and any channels and able to make quick changes when they are required. Part of the challenge is knowing when those changes are required but mastering it will be the key to success.