As Britney Spears prophesied in 1998 while doing press for the ...Baby One More Time album, everyone has been doing emails. We're firing them off at an alarming rate, we've let them keep a woman from the White House, we're manically checking them at all hours of the day and night and we're even making hiring decisions off the back of them. Or perhaps you're just ignoring them altogether.
Earlier this year organisational psychologist Adam Grant published an op-ed titled 'No, You Can't Ignore Email. It's Rude.' ""I'm too busy to answer your email" really means "Your email is not a priority for me right now." That's a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It's full of other people's priorities," writes Grant, who goes on to refer to a body of data that suggests keeping up with your digital correspondence may be linked to job performance.
And if you're Team Inbox Zero (if you had to Google what that means you might be Team I've Stopped Noticing The Red Notification Dot Because What's The Difference Between 10 And 1000 Unread Emails At This Point) then you're probably inclined to agree.
For those of us who keep on top of our emails with borderline obsessiveness, being bad at managing your inbox seems like the professional equivalent of being the friend who doesn't reply for two weeks and then asks a favour, and could you please let them know ASAP?
There are countless ways to keep in touch with people at work. In the last week alone I have interacted with colleagues on email, Slack, Trello, WhatsApp, Hangout, Microsoft Teams, Twitter, Instagram and even via the chat function on Google Docs. As anyone who's ever been to too many unnecessary meetings knows, it can be easy to feel like you spend more time talking about doing work than actually working. But as agile working arrangements continue to increase, face time with your colleagues is becoming harder to come by. And just as you wouldn't ignore the person who comes to your desk to ask you a question about your job, you shouldn't be ignoring their emails. When a few Slack messages and some back and forth communication over a project you're collaborating on might be the only impression a colleague has of you, your digital reputation matters more than ever.
When Grant's piece was published, I WhatsApped the link to a fellow email loving friend. "I feel this in my bones," I said. They agreed. Another colleague who had read it mentioned they knew some people it might be worth sharing it with, while I wondered if it was too passive aggressive to include a link to the story in my email signature. Probably, we concluded, although the people it applied to were also the least likely to see it.
Then there are those on the other end of the spectrum. The people who still haven't responded to the office manager's RSVP requests for the 2017 Christmas party. Those who see their bloated inbox as a point of pride. The ones who come to you with a question even though the answer is already right there in their inbox, waiting to be opened. The people who never find time to respond but always mark their outgoing messages with the high priority flag.
Of course, Inbox Zero isn't for everyone. Some of the most talented people I know have had inboxes with more unread emails than there have been calendar years. Does this mean they didn't care about their jobs? Absolutely not. But there's a big difference between manically filing every resolved email thread and not bothering to open the Outlook appplication for days on end.
Technology writer Taylor Lorenz made the case for Inbox Infinity (a term that, quite frankly, makes me break out in a cold sweat) in January after spending seven hours sifting through her emails after the holidays. "In 2019, I suggest you let it all go," Lorenz wrote. "There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate." And earlier this week in an article that has been widely ridiculed on Twitter, Business Insider's Jessica Liebman revealed she never hires candidates that fail to send a thank you email after their interview. Love them or loathe them, emails are affecting the way we perceive our colleagues and future employees.
Don't get me wrong, the current email climate Lorenz refers to is vicious. By 2022, it's estimated there will be 347 billion emails sent each day while Adobe's most recent consumer email survey revealed email and face-to-face conversations were tied for the preferred method of communication at work.
As for the most despised phrases in emails? "Not sure if you saw my last email" was an easy winner, followed by "per my last email".
I'm guilty of sending both of these. Britney Spears was right. Everyone is doing emails, but maybe none of us are doing them well.