Regular readers of Cal Newport’s books might initially detect a certain ‘anti technology’ thread, but really, what he’s all about is the avoidance of distraction.
A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload adds to a growing manifesto on the theme of reclaiming focus and the ability to concentrate, to block out the chatter and actually create. And he’s very persuasive.
Of course a lot of people will get distracted after reading the first half of the title, because that’s what modern communications technology has done to our attention span. And it’s an arresting idea too – hands up who loves email? The bane of our lives for so many years, the dreaded inbox has so much to answer for, and the idea of it suddenly not existing is powerful and persuasive.
But, as Newport points out in the book and elsewhere, the word email in the title actually represents what he calls ‘the hyperactive hive-mind’ – which is the total continual flow of business communication, which may spread across into messaging services like Slack too. It’s ubiquitous, growing, and out of control – to the point that many executives are trying reduced to squeezing the actual doing of the work into strange early or late corners of the day, because the day itself is spent immersed in the continual stream talking about it instead.
If it wasn’t email it would be something else, and therein lies the problem.
Lots of productivity gurus have had varying attempts to control, corral, prune, or otherwise control this flow. But Newport goes after it with a flamethrower, to root it out in the first place – proposing a completely different approach to managing workplace communications, at least internally.
Many of his suggestions will be familiar with those used to agile workflows, or Kanban, or what we have called Visible Teamwork at Virtual Not Distant. He suggests adopting an approach centred on the work itself, with the necessary communications around each part of it attached where the work is accessed – and only engaged with at the point when work is being done on that particular project. For example, using a Trello board to manage client service activities, with all intra-team messaging carried out on the board in the comments, along with the relevant documents, checklists etc.
Like I said, not so radical if you’re already used to working this way, and that’s exactly how the 21st Century Worklife podcast is presently produced, for example. And there are lots of teams who have managed this, including various case studies Newport presents, who have managed to avoid almost all internal messaging of this kind.
The challenge is in the implementation when the hive-mind is already firmly in control in a large organisation. Persuading people to step away from the email ping-pong and actually put the work first, while also learning new ways of doing things – which will inevitably be less efficient and slower at first. It’s fair to say that Newport allocates a large part of the book to exploring the different solutions and approaches different people have tried, and rather less on explaining how on earth to actually make the transition in the first place, because that transition will be difficult and very specific to each organisation. You can’t write a manual, or manifesto, for how to actually get it done where you work.
He talks about Henry Ford’s introduction of the car assembly line – the radical step of tossing away the long-established craft approach to car construction, to the idea of the moving line, along which co-ordinated and specialised activities progressed simultaneously. At first this created huge pushback and friction, and a painfully slow and limited process. It’s easy to imagine the grumbling engineers and mechanics resisting the up-ending of everything they knew, about how to perform their skilled activities. But the vision behind its scalability steadily emerged, and soon left competitors scrabbling to catch up.
Of course not only is it hard to let go of long-established practices for their own sake, the sheer speed and low-cost of the hyperactive hive mind communication flow is part of the problem. Email has a marginal cost of zero, and it’s easier and quicker to message someone sat across the room from you than it is to walk over to talk to them. It’s hard to get people to adopt something complex – which could even go wrong – like a project management system, when they have something easy and lazy and familiar to fall back on.
In other words, the problem is cultural, as much as procedural, and letting go of the ability to flick things back into the ether of the hivemind means taking on greater responsibility in many cases, for actually resolving things that come your way.
A quick ‘reply all’ saying ‘unfortunately I can’t do any of those proposed dates’ might get the problem off your mind and out of your inbox momentarily, but depending on how many people are casually copied in, it creates exponentially more stress elsewhere for others. (Fixing up a time for a bunch of people to meet together is incidentally one of the very worst uses of an endless reply-all email thread that I can possibly imagine, and there are dozens of apps which will make your life easier in this regard, from Doodle to Dubsado.)
But as I said, it’s cultural, because if teams are using email to get things off their plates rather than dealing with them then this is what needs to change. And if we’re trying to force people into meetings just to pin them down to a synchronous conversation, then there’s a deeper issue with accountability and how people are spending their time and using communication tools anyway.
The culture of communication
Remote teams CANNOT afford to let the hive-mind rule, and have more incentive than most to ensure clear process-driven asynchronous visible workflows are put in place, but they don’t happen accidentally. And it’s not like you can decide to have an ‘email-free Friday’ and communicate by popping round to people’s offices instead, as you could on-site.
Back in the days when I used to work with teams to manage a transition to remote work (yes: there was a time when this was a planned and tested intentional change management process, instead of a mad overnight scramble, and you know what, it worked!), deciding how to use communication tools meant first analysing the types and urgencies of communication the team used, then co-creating a protocol or plan for to implement it.
It also meant someone owning responsibility for making sure this was followed, because we’ll all default to the least complex most accessible option in a rush – sending a team email, instead of attaching a query to the kanban card in the project management system, or drifting into discussing a client issue in the main water-cooler Slack channel instead of the dedicated one. Somebody needs to be charged with the hygiene and maintenance of this decision, and saying ‘hey guys let’s move this over to the board now so nothing gets lost’ (then actually doing it).
So, can you slay the hydra of the hive-mind, once it has a grip in your team? And is it worth the effort?
Unequivocally yes it is – and if you are working from home, it’s essential. Without the usual time and location boundaries in place, you’ll be eaten alive. Conversely, if you get this right, you’ll enjoy flow and focus like you never dreamed possible in a place with an actual water-cooler and crowds of colleagues around gossiping.
But you need to resource and plan the battle of transition, acknowledging the power of the beast, the resistance you will encounter, and the dangers of leaving the work half done – creating extra work, duplicating conversations in more than one place, and vital information falling through the cracks. You need to choose the right tools as well, then implement their introduction with perfection, paying attention to productivity, motivation, psychological safety, and fear of the unknown.
I can help you, to scope it out and decide how to tackle things in your team. Or support you in a broader conversation about implementation. Sometimes an external consultant is a good investment, that helps you get unstuck.
But I would definitely start with a copy of Cal Newport’s new book for inspiration first. And then pick up a copy of Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You as well.