Why e-mail is bad for business.
If you want to know how much e-mail has changed working life try being without it for a day or two. Last week my college system was completely cut off (that is “down”) for 36 hours – and it was like stepping back in time in the company of that long-lost friend, the telephone.
When I first started teaching, the ring of the phone was a normal accompaniment to the working day. In fact, I’d have to unplug it if I wanted to be sure of getting an uninterrupted hour with the students. Now I’d be (un)lucky if it rang more than once a morning.
And I don’t ring out much either. Apart from domestic calls to call-centres (1 hour and 55 minutes, and still unanswered, to Orange customer service two nights ago, for the information of any fellow sufferer who may be interested) and the obligatory “I’m on the 9.15” style mobile communications, I only regularly phone in two circumstances.
First is when I have something so confidential to say that I don’t want to risk the remotest possibility that my message will get forwarded around the planet. The second is when I want to exploit what is now the surprise value of a phone call, to add impact to whatever I’m wanting to say. Most people assume that a phone call signals some sort of special urgency and respond accordingly.
Actually, a day on the phone last week proved rather more than nostalgic.
Of course, I missed the email and the discreet little “ping” when the messages came through. In particular, I missed those far flung communications from ex-students -- or from people I barely know who had read something I’d written and wanted to agree/disagree. They would never dare phone and would almost certainly not trouble to pen a letter. It’s been one of the most engaging things about e-mail that you can get a global response to almost anything you write (in the old days you relied on the occasional mutterings from your colleagues).
But by and large, forced back to it against my will, I discovered the telephone to be a rather more effective way of doing business than I remembered. The problem with e-mail is that it is so non-negotiatory. You fire off your request into the ether (“Will you teach my student Daisy next term?” Will you be on the Access and Outreach Committee”) – and you wait for the response. It’s a bit like a semi-blindfold game of ping-pong. People think it makes for speedy business-like communication. In fact, it makes for very little communication at all.
The telephone does take a bit longer, but it lets you test the waters with your interlocutor before you get to business, and to adjust the request, apology or announcement accordingly. Overall my administrative efficiency last week (judged by “yes”s received) increased significantly – with a commensurate increase in personal satisfaction. After all I’d actually spoken to a human being not a machine.
No less important the phone makes impossible those dangerous late night communications. You come back home after dinner, slightly the worse for wear. You would never dream of ringing a colleague past midnight to fix up the teaching programme for next year, or to sort out yesterday’s little disagreement, just to fill in those few minutes before you go to bed. For some reason that’s exactly what many of us appear to do with e-mail, and it is always disastrous. Half drunk, ill-spelled rants onto the keyboard never do the job you hope; they usually make things worse. I guess all of us have the scars of embarrassment to prove it.
If there’s no chance of going back to the dear old telephone as the major means of administrative communication, at least someone might invent a clever e-mail device which prevents you actually sending any between 11.00 pm and 3.00 am. It should bring them back to you in the morning with the message, “Are you sure?”