In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, Cal Newport proposes to eliminate email. Newport argues that email creates what he calls an “unstructured workflow” that reduces corporate planning and decision making to overcommunication. Newport further asserts that the unstructured flow of emails negatively impacts productivity by preventing employees from working on important tasks. Worse, by being transformed into message-passing robots, highly-skilled knowledge workers are losing satisfaction with their jobs.
Newport wants to replace emails with a system of office hours, in which employees would post a schedule of 2-3 stretches of time during the day when they will be available for communication (in person, by phone or using a messaging app like Slack). The major benefit of the system, in Newport’s view, is that outside their office hours, workers won’t be wasting time answering endless messages and will instead get on doing meaningful things. Needless to say, no one will be bothered to respond to any message at home or on vacation.
I definitely see useful elements in Newport’s proposal, although I’m afraid that creative employees will rapidly find ways to abuse his system of office hours too. But I disagree with Newport on principle: I don’t think that the best way to prevent an excessive use of a commodity (and that’s what email is: a commodity) is to ban it. What is a better way, for example, to prevent tobacco or alcohol abuse: to completely prohibit them or to tax their consumption? I think we all know the answer to this question.
So I propose that instead of eliminating corporate emails, we start charging for them. In practical terms, every business unit in an organization will be paying for each email sent by its worker from its budget, exactly as it would pay for other expenses, such as travel or buying office supplies. Within units, each worker will be assigned a “quota” appropriate to his or her position and responsibility. Alternatively, email usage of each worker will be monitored for signs of “abuse” (exactly as many companies are tracking expenses for the notorious “business meals”).
Admittedly, charging for emails won’t make their flow “structured,” but it will dramatically reduce their volume–and with all due respect to Newport’s disdain for “unstructured workflow,” it is email volume rather than anything else that troubles people. (Not to mention that charging for emails will essentially stop using them for private purposes, something that many companies are concerned about).
I also suspect that paying for email will help many people “hate” it less. After all, don’t we all value things that we chose to pay for?
Image credit: Gerard Terborch “Woman Writing a Letter” (1655) (http://bjws.blogspot.com/2013/01/1600s-women-reading-writing-letters-no.html)