The tone of his email was harsh:
“Can we please go back to using email and just attaching a word document? I’m getting all these pings every time you make a change to the Google Doc.”
Ah. I’d made the classic mistake of assuming that my new collaborator was familiar with a tool I’d been using for years.
“If it’s ok with you, I’d prefer to give this way of working one more try. All you need to do is change your notification settings, here’s how you do it.”
There are ways of working with others remotely that don’t involve email.
Email was never invented to eliminate phone calls. It was not invented to have high-quality conversations between numerous people. And, although I am making all of these assumptions, I doubt it was ever invented to be used to divulge responsibility of employees’ actions by cc’ing managers in it, a common complaint amongst managers in organisations. (I wish I could say it’s the common complaint of managers of virtual teams, but even collocated ones suffer from a belly-full inbox.)
So, in order to address the flood of emails, organisations and teams introduce collaboration tools. In virtual teams, and as people transition to a more flexible way of working where most communication happens asynchronously, collaboration platforms keep internal communication in one place and separate from external parties’ emails.
For those knowledge workers who need to work on documents together, the range of tools where you can collaborate on a document in the cloud have saved us from attachment fatigue (you know, that thing that happens when you download, save version 2.1 and attach again) as we can just work on a shared, single document online.
Find Your Notification Settings
As all of these platforms have been built for people to collaborate, there is a whole system of notifications inbuilt into them. Surely if I make some changes to a report we’re both working on, you’d like to know about it? (Insert your answer here.)
Whatever your answer is, you shouldn’t be feeling like you’re being bombarded by notifications nor missing out from the conversation/work because you don’t know it’s happened. Wherever you sit on this spectrum, it’s your own responsibility to adjust the notifications to suit you.
Last month's article by Oliver Burkman, ,'Turn off Notifications and Break Free of Your Online Chains' made me laugh. (Thanks to my Evidence Talks co-host Richard MacKinnon for the share.)
Like my new collaborator who was getting irritated by his phone constantly pinging with email notifications telling him I’d changed “your” to “yours” in a Google Doc, it’s really up to the individual to customise how he/she is alerted, and not the responsibility of the rest of the team.
That's My Preference, What's Yours?
We all differ on how we like to be reached and how we like to find out about what’s going on in our team. Some people prefer to gather all information in their Inbox, so they set notifications to be pushed to their email.
This is the case of Hassan Osman, author of ‘Don’t Reply All’ who shared this with me an co-host Lisette last year on a podcast episode.
I was horrified. I love purposely going to a collaboration platform and checking out what’s new, so I stop most of my notifications from going to email. On the other hand, Hassan finds that enabling notifications to go to email keeps everything he needs to be aware of in one place.
And if you’re using your smartphone to access your work communications, be sensible about it and adjust your push notifications to the settings that suit you, not those that the manufacturer chose for you by default. You need to decide what works for you.
Transitioning Away from Email
If you’re starting to work in a “more flexible way”, by which I mean, more flexibility in your schedule and location, it’s worth looking at moving your communications from email to a collaboration tool.
But wait. Don’t just say, “Ok, we’re using this new platform. No more email. That’s it.”
You need to transition slowly and in a way that has a chance of working out. Otherwise, your good intentions will result in an empty space and will be viewed as “shiny new tool” syndrome. (Needless to say, part of this transition will involve familiarizing people with the tools’ notification settings.)
Let’s Move On
I can’t advise how on to make the transition from email to collaboration tool, as I don’t know your team, organisation or culture, but I can share a success story that we can all learn from.
In 2011, Thierry Breton from Atos (France) declared that within three years, the company would be email free. Even though he’d dropped the use of email for internal collaboration himself many years earlier, Breton found that the company’s managers were spending between 5 and 20 hours per week reading and replying to emails.
The solution was not just to “ban all internal email”, it was to replace it with a social enterprise network. The company introduced Blue Kiwi, which it later bought, and created training programmes for their 5,000 managers to learn how to use the new platform.
The company, with over 70,000 employees, also set up an ambassadors programme, consisting of 3,500 people ready to support or train others who needed help using the new tool.
By the end of 2013, Atos had reduced overall email by 60% and its employees now feel more productive and collaborative than before. (If you want to read more on this and modern contemporary work practices, check out 'Under New Management' by David Burkus.)
A Chance to Succeed
Your company might look nothing like Atos, but this popular case study illustrates some of the aspects that can increase your chances of success when moving away from email.
- The CEO/senior person of influence championed the change and had experienced the change himself.
- The right problem was identified. (This wasn’t a case of “I’ve heard others are using Slack, let’s do it here too.”). Breton knew that the huge volume of emails circulating in the company was having an effect on productivity and that’s the problem he tackled.
- The new software was introduced with training and support for employees. This one is so important. Don’t assume that just because computers have been in the workplace for decades that we all know how to intuitively use all new technology.
Think About It.
An online conversation tool (call it collaboration platform, social enterprise network, project management tool, there are loads of different versions out there…) that suits your team’s work can give you all a greater sense of autonomy.
Introducing a new tool which affects how you all communicate will require thought, attention, training and reviewing. And if you’re introducing it to increase productivity and reduce distractions, make sure you give plenty of attention and importance to those ever-important settings: your notifications.