Cubicle Culture: Employees forsake dreaded email for beloved phone

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In the beginning there was spam, and the world saw that it was bad, including Stephen Jukuri. But he has changed his mind. "I love it," he gushes. "I can get rid of it. Delete. Delete. Delete."

What craters Mr. Jukuri's day is deciding if, when and how to respond to his normal email. "Now that anyone can email me about anything, they seem to," he says. "Every single 'Forward' I've ever gotten fits into that category" of everything and anything, he says. The hail of email has gotten so bad that he created a folder called "Limbo" where as many as 600 stale-mails have piled up since November 2003, including several from his high-school friend Laura, who's pretty miffed by his lack of response.

"We've reached the too-much-information age, but we really haven't reached the communication age," he says.

Email, heralded as one of the greatest productivity tools of our time, is terrific for mass mailing, trading files, getting a word in edgewise, and providing evidentiary manna for plaintiff's lawyers.

But with an estimated 84 billion messages sent world-wide each day, according to research consultancy IDC, it's sometimes hard to put your finger on the efficiency of email while digging out from a pile of it. Like bad advice, self-importance and ugly carpeting, there's just too much of it in the office. Email Backlash 2.0's features include an overtendency to send it, an inability to respond to it, and a conversation slower than smoke signals.

That's why the telephone is looking ever better these days. "If Bill Gates invented the telephone and Alexander Graham Bell invented email," notes Dennis Fluegel, a retired senior project manager, "we would all be saying, 'You should get one of these telephones, you can actually talk to someone, hear what they are saying, and you don't have to use a keyboard!'"

Maria Jepson, a psychotherapist, can't give up on email cold turkey. But she won't give into it either. Suited to "quick and dirty" exchanges of information, email is terrible for conversations, which are reserved for the phone. "I use email less than I did five years ago," she says.

Evidence of the harrowing burden of email is everywhere. Experts, advising us how to manage email, use words like inbox "triage" and promote the phone, pen and paper to make email more efficient. In a study conducted by research firm Basex, more people (31 percent) categorized normal email as "most disruptive" than characterized spam that way (27 percent). It's no wonder that people who can afford to outsource email farm it out. According to the ePolicy Institute, 43 percent of administrative professionals ghostwrite email under an executive's name and, tellingly, nearly one-third of them are deputized to delete it.

One problem that has emerged is email's double standard: People love the convenience of email for themselves but resent it in the hands of CC: addicts, joke forwarders and URL pushers.

If only email involved the inconvenience of letter writing, which "effectively prevented people from using it to say things like, 'OK,'" says Jonathan Powers, a graduate student. That's why he thinks electronic postal fees, considered a remedy to combat twitchy fingered spammers, should also be applied to friends and colleagues -- in other words, neo-spammers.

With email wheat-to-chaff ratios increasingly out of whack, overload decimates what economists would call "scarcity value," and makes messages easier -- if not completely necessary -- to ignore. Or, in the case of high-tech executive Joe Michaels, to ignore without technically ignoring. "If you ask more than one question in an urgent email," he says, "the respondent undoubtedly will only answer the question you care about least."

Clifford Gormley, a network administrator, notes another axiom: "If you CC multiple people to answer a question in an email, very often nobody responds." It's the hitchhiker rule: The more cars there are, the easier it is to ignore the hitchhiker, he says. And nonverbal cues such as the red exclamation point meant to signify a message's urgency often don't. Says Mr. Gormley: "Ninety five percent of the time they're only a high priority in the sender's mind."

A part of the torment arises from the fact that email, stripped of paralinguistic cues (intonation) and nonverbal messaging (eye rolling), can lead to ambiguity, naturally requiring more email. That's why email conversations can drone on as much as five times as long as a telephone call, estimates Daniel McFarlane, principal member of Lockheed Martin's engineering staff, who has researched interruptions. "Email is not a friction-free productivity tool," he says.

Companies have tried to stanch the flow. Two years ago, Jeremy Burton, then a vice president of marketing at Veritas Software, was so tired of wading through email that he enacted a Friday ban on email in his department. Violators would be fined $1, and the first was also forced to wear a scarlet "E" emblazoned on his chest. Months later, the company merged with Symantec, and the ban "didn't survive," says a spokeswoman.

Three years ago, the founder of Caudwell Group, which operated 350 cellphone-gear stores in the United Kingdom, dubbed email a "cancer of modern business" and banned email use in the stores. The move made people more likely to use the phone, a spokesman says. But, over time, the ban was breached. "I don't think a business can eradicate email," he says. "The temptation will always be there."



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