What is the biggest obstacle to productivity in the UK? The answer must be our most charming companion: email. Not only has it not evolved over a generation, but for young employees it is an increasingly strange medium. Drop online by incompetent handlers, the email giant now goes crazy. So why do we still nod, smile and live our lives without thinking, little by little?
Many of the email's defects have become a tired obvious. Although it is sent worldwide with a simple touch, it remains a deceptively arduous medium. What should be a simple conversation becomes a laborious task of reading, writing, sending, receiving, rephrasing, forwarding and wondering what you have done to deserve all this. The invitation to an immediate response hinders careful thinking, frustrating those who prefer to plan beyond the next few hours. Worse, congratulate yourself for answering a message in a minute, and your likely reward is to receive a subsequent save 30 seconds later.
Email inboxes fetish newcomers: a quick burst of straw, marked crudely with evasive subject lines, throws important unknown emails off the screen. Once off the radar, only the most virtuous and hardworking will dig them again; much more seductive is the "mark all read" button, which dissolves known unknowns in a guilty oblivion.
However, technology experts proclaim that about 300 billion emails are sent daily. Even if most of the traffic is scum generated by the machine, this still amounts to 75 emails that reach all humans in the line of fire. Therefore, much of the modern workday is an email review job: your real work is only seen when a window for calm thinking arises.
In addition, social networks and messaging applications have usurped the crown of email. Four out of five Britons between 18 and 24 use WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat; nine out of ten Facebook Messenger. Nor is it just a "Generation Z" phenomenon: 58% of UK Internet users now use WhatsApp, three fifths per day. These freewheel tools provide the context for contemporary conversation, not email. Beyond acquiring an address to register an online profile, or complain to Izzy about customer services, email is for millions of young people, simply a receptacle for blogs and marketing. Many teenagers don't dream of suggesting a personal email address for informal contact.
However, neither schools nor employers are teaching workers how to live with the daily routine of life through email. Take the prodigious problem of tone. I am not talking about the subtleties of etiquette and direction, grammar and punctuation, but of clarity, which in any email is elusive: inevitably, words are wrong, jokes fail and erroneous inferences abound. These terrible problems cannot be solved by the fearsome army of emoji.
So why, after 40 years of inadequate stubbornness, do we still venerate email as the digital successor of the letter and the phone? At least the effort required to write and send a letter to the world helps stupid or useless messages: nobody bothers the mailman with one-line questions. per liter. In addition, the possibility that the letters remain for a week without opening, and another two weeks without response, forces each one to carry some real weight and purpose. Nor is there a separate and dishonest way to dispense with unread letters stacked on the desk, other than the bin. As for the telephone, questions can be asked and answered simultaneously. A live exchange, or a conversation, if desired, occurs easily. Both surpass passive-aggressive email chains both in rhythm and pleasure.
So what to do? It would, of course, be absurdly neo-Luddite to give up email as a medium. We are too deep, and its convenience is excellent in small doses. But convenience kills quality, and for a long time we have passed the key point of optimal communication.
Instead, we could start by removing unnecessary email. If you need to exchange ideas in real time, pick up the phone, meet in person or use a cloud-based online site, such as Slack. If this seems too iconoclastic, perhaps a penny tax for each email sent would help focus the mind, especially if employees paid the bill? Any money saved could pay for the installation of a first level videoconferencing software.
Many emails lose all their value shortly after being sent. So why not allow the sender to delete old-fashioned and unread emails from the inboxes of others, once the conversation and events have continued? Perhaps more companies and institutions could think of extending curfews by email, which at least circumscribe the problem within office hours, to email quotas? If you are allowed to send only 50 emails per day, each one will be sent seriously.
Once you've reached the limit, try to pick up a phone: if it doesn't seem worth the effort, then what you have to say is probably not worth an email anyway. Until we all realize that we have come to accept the office's daily spam as the first fillet, our Augean inboxes will never be purged.