This article from The Wall Street Journal caught my attention recently, “Zappos CEO Has His Own Way to Manage Email.” In you didn’t know (and I didn’t), Wikipedia tells us that Zappos is an online shoe retailer that was founded by Tony Hsieh and he remains the company’s chief executive, though the company was acquired by Amazon back in 2009. Also according to Wikipedia, the company has about 1,500 employees.
So how does Hsieh win manage his email? Check out these blurbs from the article:
Several years ago, Mr. Hsieh devised an email management technique he calls“Yesterbox.” The idea is to go through yesterday’s messages today. That way, Mr. Hsieh says, “you know exactly how many emails you have to get through,” rather than constantly battling incoming missives throughout the day. At the end of the day, you can reach a point when you have no more email left to process from the day before, he says.
Mr. Hsieh says he often completes his emailing by noon. He rarely responds to a nonurgent email the day he receives it, and says the methodology has speeded up his email response time because he procrastinates less often on tough-to-write responses, which used to take up to several months.
On top of that he adds:
One of the toughest parts of the technique, Mr. Hsieh says, was training himself not to answer emails that come in that day, even if the response is a simple one-word reply. He first determines if the response can wait 48 hours without causing harm. If the response time doesn’t matter, as is the case with most email, he says he forces himself to wait until the next day to answer it. (He does, however, allow today’s email to be deleted, forwarded or filed—but no responses unless urgent.)
First off, it sounds like Mr. Hsieh’s job title should be changed from CEO to “Chief Executive Emailer.” He’s the CEO of a company with billions of dollars in sales and “he often completes his emailing by noon.” Unless he’s normally arriving to work late, he’s spending about half of his time emailing people — plus, he’s bogging down his billion dollar organization because he’s waiting 24 to 48 hours before replying to his emails. And, to make things even crazier, there are texts and groups of texts that are thrown on top of the problem:
Given his strict system, Mr. Hsieh turns to another technology to ensure that he doesn’t miss pressing messages. “Anything urgent I prefer to just use text messaging,” he says.
This sounds like insanity to me but, unfortunately, this is the world in which many of us live and work. You can probably tell by my tone that I’m not a fan of Mr. Hsieh’s system, but in reality, that may be the best he can do when managing a billion dollar company with thousands of employees. However, try that system in a smaller work place and you’ll likely find yourself literally being thrown under a bus. Take 48 hours to respond to a co-worker’s email and you’ll find yourself constantly chaffing that co-worker.
So what do we do? Well, that probably depends on our role within an organization. If we’re order-takers, our response is probably a little different than if we are change-drivers (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those). If we’re order-takers, we need to process and sort an email in a way that pleases and helps our superiors. If we’re change-drivers, then we have an opportunity to change our email culture. Here are a few ideas for change-drivers:
Examine our own email practices. A good place to start is with ourselves. If we want to change the culture and if we have the influence to change a culture, our first look should be inward. If we’re constantly griping about emails, then first take a look at the example we’re setting. Do we respond promptly to email? Do we help keep the flow of work going? Do we bombard others with emails as attempt to empty our own inbox?
Recently, I’ve studied my own email practices. I found that I hardly ever send off-topic emails and almost all of them provide clarity, instruction or correction to things that are very important. But I also found that I send too many of them.
If we want to change the email culture, we need to first figure out how we fit into the culture and how we are influencing it.
Send less email. If you are a change-driver, then you probably send too many emails. I speak from experience. As I mentioned above, my emails are important and cover important topics. But emails from change-drivers tend to feel like hammers. People cringe when they see these messages pop up in their inboxes. We may think they inspire and clarify, but instead, others tend to see these messages as a slow-drip torture treatment.
We’re probably not getting away from email any time soon; some messages absolutely have to be sent. But if you want to change the culture, perhaps the first thing we should do is slide the keyboard away from ourselves.
Keep the process moving. If you are a change-driver, chances are people need your feedback to keep assembly line moving. (Unfortunately, I’m using the assembly line as a metaphor.) If that’s your role, and if your response to emails is necessary to keep things moving along…then keep things moving along. Don’t wait 48 hours to respond. You may not want to be notified every time an email arrives, but perhaps you could take a peek once an hour and respond to the items that will improve your workplace efficiency.
Delegate authority. If you’re the main cog that keeps the assembly line moving, maybe you need to think about training others to help with the decision making. This is especially true in situations where you are making the same routine decisions over and over again. If you can share your logic with others, the plant won’t stop moving if you are away from your inbox.
Pick up the telephone. I abhor using the telephone. I cringe every time it rings and look for any excuse to send callers to voice mail. Telephone calls interrupt our schedules and can run on for what seems like forever as callers ramble about whatever comes to mind. But using this old-school technology is very handy for reducing email overload. Instead of 30 emails throughout the week, perhaps a 10-minute call mid-week could cover the same ground? Instead of scheduling an hour to skillfully craft a 1,000 word email, perhaps a five-minute call would suffice? It’s definitely easier to tap out a short email instead of dialing the phone and talking for 30 minutes, but isn’t a pat on the back better when you can hear the giver’s voice?
Schedule more meetings. I enjoy meetings about as much as telephone calls, but like using the telephone, something as simple as scheduling a meeting can improve how your organization works. Could a 15 minute meeting save 100 emails a week? Sure it could. If your team is working on a project, periodically schedule brief face-to-face meetings to solve simple issues. This is a much more effective way to get things done versus having to read dozens of emails.
How we handle email is tied to where we work and our position at work. At times, reading and responding to emails may just be our job. That may be all there is. At other times, we may be able to effect change. In those cases, take a step back and consider suggestions like these. Often times simple or overlooked ideas can generate big improvements in our work flow and office culture.