Why Email Is Such a Time Suck

Workplace technology expert and author Phil Simon, keynote speaker at Business Events Industry Week’s Showcase 2023, says there are better, more efficient ways to collaborate than via email. 

Author: Michelle Russell       

author Phil Simon speaking

Workplace technology expert and author Phil Simon would rather not receive your — or anyone else’s — email when collaborating.

If you want to schedule a call with workplace technology guru Phil Simon, you should avoid emailing him. There are much better tools for that (Simon uses Calendly) — and there are far more efficient ways to collaborate on projects, which Simon shared as the keynote speaker at Destinations International and PCMA’s Showcase on March 8 at the Gaylord National Resort, as part of Business Events Industry Week.

Simon advises companies on how to use technology and is the author of 13 books including Reimagining Collaboration, which he drew from in his session, “Reimagining Collaboration: Ending the Chaos of Workplace Tech” — a whistlestop tour of tools and approaches to make it easier to work internally and externally and with improved outcomes.

Convene spoke with Simon several days before his session about how remote and hybrid work is causing us to rethink the best ways to collaborate. Here are some of his insights.

Is it more difficult to collaborate now that most of us work remotely at least part of the time?

It is harder, but in other aspects, it’s easier. Not all work needs to be synchronous. The idea that you have to be in an office to work or to collaborate is absurd. In the books I’ve been writing over the last two to three years since COVID hit, I think there is recognition among progressive leaders that we’re not going back, it is quite frankly infantilizing to expect people to commute.

We’ve had really three years of remote/hybrid work and all the data suggests that we’ve been as — if not more — productive. Ultimately, it’s a trust issue.

If we’re going to be doing a proper project over months or years, it does make sense for us to get together certainly to kick off the project and on a regular basis. Because if you think about being able to work remotely and some of the challenges inherent that there’s something to be said for currency if you’re just an avatar in Slack or an email address.

There is something to be said for getting together, but collaboration means just to work with other people to get something done. We can absolutely be effective working in an asynchronous way. We don’t have to be there in person, but for certain things, I just think it’s silly to not break bread with someone. Certain types of activities — training, collaboration, brainstorming — that just makes sense to get on a plane once in a while or go into the office. If I’m doing admin work or what Cal Newport would call “deep work,” like writing a book, I don’t want to be in an office to do that because people are going to tap me on the shoulder. They should. You’re there. It’s just easier.

My sense is the number of workplace tech tools is proliferating and that makes it hard for knowledge workers to keep up and adopt. Thoughts?

If people are overwhelmed and they are, then they leave [organizations] and burnout is one of the biggest reasons. My working thesis is that people aren’t burned out because they’re doing the cool stuff. They’re burned out because they’re spending two-and-a-half hours a day trying to find basic documents or trying to schedule appointments or trying to figure out what’s going on because we’ve got three different project management tools and someone asks a simple question, “Hey, where are we with this?” It depends on whom or what you ask. That’s just insane. It doesn’t need to be that way.

I would argue that if [there’s] someone with whom you’ll be collaborating routinely, [those conversations belong] in a Microsoft Teams channel [rather than email] because if you go on leave, or if you win the lottery and leave the company, your organization is still going to want that information and inboxes [tend to] die when people leave the company. All that valuable knowledge goes poof.

The problem is that the choices that we can make as consumers don’t play out very well when we’re employees. The idea that I’m going to use whatever tools I want is insane.

One of the tips that I’ll make [in my session] is to actually consider the tools that people will use. If [you are looking to work with a firm that’s affordable, but only uses email], are you just thinking about the costs out of pocket and not the implicit costs on your employees who [are therefore unable to find the information they need in a string of emails]? Then when you think about people missing details and just all these things that are causing people really to feel overwhelmed, I do think that there are solutions, but it’s not simple.

It may in some cases involve people saying, “Look, unless you use this tool, we’re not going to do business with you. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week.” When we look to renew or look at our preferred vendor list, we really should be evaluating people on their willingness to collaborate. Especially if you’re using something like Microsoft Teams [that is so commonly used]. Teams has got, what, over 300 million users?

Even if you don’t use Teams (and I use Teams and Slack and Zoom) these tools are so similar. It’s not hard to figure these things out, but until we recognize that there is this implicit cost and there is a solution in particularly connecting things like Asana to Slack or to Zoom, [people will be frustrated]. We don’t want people bouncing around between and among all these different apps. It really increases our cognitive load.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief at Convene.

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