Work Email: A Love-Hate Relationship

In early 2018, I got hooked on a Harvard Business Review podcast called “Dear HBR” that a former Peace Corps colleague and LinkedIn contact recommended.

During each episode, hosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn read three listeners’ letters on workplace dilemmas and talk out solutions with a relevant industry expert. Some of my favorite topics have focused on toxic workplaces, getting sidelined, job-hopping, hard conversations, dysfunctional teams, poor communicators, ineffective leaders, personal rebranding, performance reviews, annoying subordinates, lateral moves, career transition, and bad bosses. I’m always happy to see a new available episode of “Dear HBR.” A couple of weeks ago, the third letter on a new episode called Benefits and Perks got my attention. It was about managing the crush of work email upon returning from leave, and that topic is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

I have had a love-hate relationship with my work email at least since 2008 when I got my first BlackBerry. Between 2006 and 2014, I worked in Washington as a special assistant, and was glued to my email during every waking hour.

Democratic National Convention 2008 – the day of Senator Obama’s acceptance speech. Between 04:45 and 18:30, I had 5 credentials for 92 reporters to get to and from the TV stand-up position, and my email and call volume killed three phone batteries in a row by the time Obama took the stage that night

At the peak of my email doom in 2009-2010, I had mirror accounts to two of my principals’ emails and received several hundred emails per day. I could barely read it all, and my job was set up for me to be the primary respondent and action officer on many of the messages. And guess what? I had no real backup.

Back then, I read a book called “Never Check Email in the Morning: and Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work,” by Julie Morgenstern and literally guffawed. I didn’t disagree with her in principal, but that particular strategy would have never worked with the kind of job I had. She didn’t have my boss bursting out of his office all day yelling, “Did you SEE that email?” I could not be successful, no matter how calm I stayed, or how much energy I spent managing my (and everyone else’s) email.

June 2010 in Munich – one week in to a three week vacation, 771 unread emails…and there were over 3,000 waiting for me upon my return to Washington

Now that I am in a different type of role as a political officer, I have realized that I can no longer have a “clear the decks,” respond-to-everything-now mentality about my work email. However, I am still obligated to read my email outside of the office and triage, prioritize, and respond.

The way my inbox floods while I am trying to write substantive and analytical products can be distracting. When I’m talking to someone in their office and see over their shoulder that they have thousands of unread mails, I feel a slow panic rise in me. I don’t know how they can bear it: the chance of missing something. It still bothers me, as much as I have tried to leave it behind.

I can’t tell you how many nights I have worked going through my inbox, only to have it all overflowing again within a few days. And I can’t tell you how many mornings I have come into the office with a plan for the day, only to have all my priorities derailed by other people’s email.

After all, when the part of my job that is being responsive is totally out of balance with the part of my job that is doing my own work, I start to feel resentful. These days I wonder if the people who don’t respond to things have a reason beyond being disorganized; could it be that they are actually just tired of being slaves to work email and other people’s priorities?

Because I have been increasingly frustrated lately by the sheer volume of work email I receive, I have looked for ways to streamline so that I can free up more time for the great work I actually get paid to do. Color-coding. Automatic filtering. Flags. Aggressively filing it all day. Putting an auto-away on to say that I will only be responding to my email between x and y hours. Just deleting it all. Insisting that colleagues edit shared documents that live on “live” shared platforms, to ease version control and endless email attachments flying back and forth. I have tried everything.

I still have no idea what is the best way to manage my email, short of keeping my inbox below 100 messages and strictly limited to to-dos, but there is no getting around it: email is a HUGE time suck.

And that suck is frequently compounded when I’m out of the office on leave. And that was the essence of the third letter writer’s question on Dear HBR.

DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down. 

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts, and help you move forward. 

ALISON BEARD: Today we’re talking about benefits with Mike Fenlon. He’s the chief people officer at PWC. Mike, thanks so much for coming in…

The first two questions were interesting enough, but then we came to my age-old dilemma.

DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I’m a manager in a manufacturing plant. I like my job, but I’m facing a big issue. Despite my best efforts, it always feels like there’s a big cost to taking vacation time. I was on vacation for three days last week. I’m still climbing out from under all the email and missed action items that need attention. I can delegate some things to folks to keep the business running but following up on the emails is a real challenge. It’s not just me. One of my subordinates told me he worked almost 12 hours today just so he would feel comfortable taking tomorrow off. One solution is for me to keep on top of email when I’m gone. But that prevents me from fully unplugging. Otherwise, I have to work additional hours after I get back to the office. Vacation is a benefit, just like healthcare or a company retirement plan. It’s not fair that the demands I face don’t go away when I’m using this paid time off. How can I make it less painful to fully use my vacation benefit?

MIKE FENLON: That’s a great question. So many of us feel like, when I go on vacation, just let me take my vacation. And you know, we’re in a non-stop, always-on world. It’s become a big issue, a big challenge. 

ALISON BEARD: It seems to me that this is a problem of culture, rather than something he might be able to handle himself. But how does one employee go about changing the way all of their colleagues work? 

MIKE FENLON: So Alison, I think one thing this letter writer could think about first of all is, how are they working with their team? So not just individually here, but how could I engage my teammates in all of us planning and working together with enough time and forward planning, so we can create protected time.

DAN MCGINN: Mike, your advice that this is all about the team and the workload resonates with me. Usually, I work remote on Fridays, but we came in because Alison is going skiing in Idaho next week. [LAUGHTER] So her decision to take her time off is having an impact on me. I saw one statistic that last year 54% of American workers left vacation time unused because of this exact issue. I can’t get away. There’s too much work. I’ll be penalized when I come back by just having to chip through it all. So there are costs to this. 

MIKE FENLON: It’s huge.

ALISON BEARD: Not to keep it on me, but I have emailed colleagues and said, don’t worry, I’ll still be checking email if you need me to edit that while I’m gone. I can do it. How do you break yourself of doing that when you feel like you’re letting people down if the work just stops while you’re away?

MIKE FENLON: Yeah. Listen, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this. But I also think it’s important for you, Alison, to have some disconnected time to recharge. So there’s one vision of that vacation where you’re on those ski slopes, maybe you’re up at the top of the mountain, waiting to go down, and you’ve got your cell phone, and it’s going off. One thing we’ve got to recognize, that it’s actually really important that you do get time to disconnect. 

ALISON BEARD: So our letter writer is accurate, that he needs that unplugged time.

MIKE FENLON: He’s more than accurate. It’s essential. And by the way, we often don’t do our most creative work sitting and staring at our desk trying to think through a problem. Often times those issues are sort of percolating. And having that kind of time away actually allows you to think in deeper and more creative ways as well. You know, there may be issues that this letter writer or for you, that you decide, you know, actually, there’s some time-sensitive matters I’m just going to have to weigh in on. But better for that to be an explicit, transparent kind of decision, versus an implicit expectation that you’re going to respond in a nanosecond to any email, even if you’re on vacation. 

DAN MCGINN: I used to work at a company. They actually used it as a development and training tool. So when my boss would go on vacation, they would be gone, and I wouldn’t hear from them, and I would step up a level and do that person’s job for a week. We’d actually, it was a strange situation. We’d actually sit in their office. I would move offices. I would go sit in my boss’s office. I would go that job for a week, and then they would come back. And I think the smartphones and the always-on connectivity have made that a little less practical. But I found it a great experience that I was able to step up like that.

MIKE FENLON: Yeah, I think that’s terrific. It goes to a bigger issue around autonomy. Vacations can recharge and give other people opportunities to exercise, just as you were describing, their own judgment, stretch, and so it’s not just teamwork, but it’s development. 

ALISON BEARD: Again, though, that sounds like something bigger than his pay grade. You know, he is a manager, so he can put in policies on his team, but if he’s trying to change how the organization operates, how does he begin to do that?

MIKE FENLON: Alison, I think that’s a real-world question. I think you could start by trying to find some coconspirators. Find some people that you’re working with on your team and bring up the topic. Bring up the issue. Guaranteed, you’re not the only one who wants to take a good vacation. 

DAN MCGINN: How much of this can be addressed by simple tools and techniques? And let me give a specific example. We ran a piece on our website last year by Ariana Huffington, who runs a firm called Thrive Global. And instead of just sending our normal out of office messages, I’m on vacation, I’ll be back on September 17th, they have a system where, if you email somebody that’s on vacation, it says, I’m on vacation until September 17th. This email is being deleted. If it’s so important, email me back after I’m back at work. Strange system, but the whole company uses it. It’s become their cultural norm. And it’s really effective. You don’t need to deal with your email when you come back, because it’s been deleted, and It’s going to come again if it’s important. And most of it doesn’t.

MIKE FENLON: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting example. I think we all know that might not work in every organization, every business. 

DAN MCGINN: It sounds like you have clients just like our listener has customers of the factory he works in.

MIKE FENLON: Exactly. And we have people who are depending on us, and sometimes for time-sensitive issues, just like the listener. So there is no single solution here.

ALISON BEARD: The advice that I found most helpful, personally, is this idea of explaining what you’re doing. And that way, whether it’s an internal colleague or an external colleague, if you say, I’m celebrating my 10th anniversary with my husband, and we’re taking our two children to the beach, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t respond to you for a week. But I have a colleague here who can help you. I think that will make people less angry if they don’t receive an immediate response.

MIKE FENLON: And that was in your, the actual out of office message, you’re saying?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, mm hm.

MIKE FENLON: Yeah, I agree with you when you personalize it. And we actually, just my team recently, we had a contest, a vacation contest for people who could come up with the funniest out of office messages. It was anchored in actual personal examples of what they were doing. Now, the other thing that you said I feel like I can do that. I have kids. I have a family. Oh, sure, of course, we have to respect your vacation time. Well, what if I don’t? What if I don’t have kids? What if my interests are different? And it’s really important as well as part of this discussion I’m describing, this teamwork that I’m encouraging our listener to think about how they might translate, there’s no value judgment here. Right? And it’s your time. 

ALISON BEARD: It’s OK to say, I’m taking three days of hiking in the mountains by myself to recharge. 

MIKE FENLON: There’s no value judgment, and your time is your time, and it’s not, maybe because I have kids, it’s not as if my time is more important or it’s more valid, that I need to have that kind of vacation. 

DAN MCGINN: So this may sound a little bit harsh, but I have a little different view on some of this. This guy’s a manager. He’s got a big team reporting to him. It sounds like he’s pretty senior in this manufacturing facility. At a certain level of pay and responsibility, you’re going to have to get the work done, and there’s not going to be an easy solution to this. I would argue that some of this is a personal decision. Would you rather chip away at a little bit at your work during your vacation to avoid coming back to that mountain? Or do you want to try to dial out, knowing that you’re going to face a punishing workload when you get back?

ALISON BEARD: I feel like our letter writer might benefit from compartmentalizing in the way you suggested, you know, saying, I do really want to unplug, but there are certain emails that need to get answered. So a half an hour each day at X time, I will handle it. 

MIKE FENLON: I agree. And I think, again, there is no one solution here. You’ve got to figure out what works in your culture, in your organization, in your role. And then take some personal responsibility for the planning and the communication and building shared expectations. 

ALISON BEARD: So we talked about bringing together the team, figuring out ways to cover for each other, finding coconspirators in the organization. But what if there isn’t anyone else who can do his specific job? 

MIKE FENLON: Well, now I think we’ve got a different issue. Don’t we? Because that kind of goes to the, you know, for our listener, am I developing the skills of my team members, of the people who report to me? Because if I’m not helping them develop the skills ready to take on my role, that’s in some ways a bigger issue, but it’s now creating a point where I can’t separate at all. 

ALISON BEARD: So the vacation issue is a symptom of a broader problem.

MIKE FENLON: Precisely. I think that’s right. And that’s something I want the listener to think about. What are the root issues here? 

ALISON BEARD: Right. So Dan, what are we telling our plant manager?

DAN MCGINN: We’re telling him that this is largely a cultural issue. This is not something he’s going to be able to change on his own. He can’t be the hero here. This needs to be a social, team solution. He can talk to his bosses about it. He can talk to his subordinates and try to change his subordinates’ behavior, because he is their manager, and he tells them, look, I don’t want you dealing with email while you’re on vacation, that will start to change the norm within the company. He should try to talk about the benefits of fully unplugging during a vacation and recharging and giving time for creativity and blank slate thinking. He should think about the developmental opportunities of giving the work to his subordinates. They will learn and grow if they’re doing some of his work while he’s on vacation. It will help prepare them for their next job, and it’s a good thing for everybody. He also can use techniques like the out of office email. If he can be specific about when he’ll be back, if he can say exactly what issues should go to which subordinate, that might reduce the amount of email he comes back to on vacation.

My takeaway was basically that this is not only an individual issue where your approach may vary based on a variety of factors (industry, seniority, customer expectations, availability, etc.), but also an issue of organizational culture and norms.

In my current workplace, we have a great system of backups and coverage so that when one political officer is out, their backup can step into the breach and backstop their portfolio. This is something that I have found enormously helpful and comforting, especially considering that I have had to take several weeks cumulatively of medical leave since I have been at Post. At embassies in general, I feel there are frequent opportunities to “stretch” by acting for your boss in his/her absence, or covering for someone who is normally senior to you.

So while I’m satisfied that someone can help with issues while I am out, and it is common in the State Department to list in an auto-reply different POCs for your areas of responsibility while you are out, it doesn’t stop the email from piling up. And by the time you return, much of it has become OBE (overtaken by events). I typically need almost two full days to completely go through email and prioritize tasks after I return from more than a week away.

I think using whatever high-tech office automation tools are available, as well as batching and bundling responses at key intervals during the day, can help you from being distracted all day by email interruptions. There is some research to suggest that people, and introverts in particular, can be distracted for about 15 minutes after being disrupted. (So THAT’S where my days are going?!)

I highly recommend the “Dear HBR” podcast if you haven’t heard it. It is Western-centric for the most part, but I think it’s a helpful tool to gauge current thinking on workplace matters and has helped me navigate and innovate in some tricky situations. Happy listening! (Put that BlackBerry down!)

  3 comments for “Work Email: A Love-Hate Relationship

  1. April 4, 2019 at 15:53

    This was a great read and something I could relate to very well!

    Liked by 1 person

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