A while back, I read a short article in a round-robin e-mail / new service for the leisure & hospitality industry which featured a quote from the head of eating chain, Pret-a-Manger. For context, it is quoted in full below.
“Pret A Manger boss Clive Schlee has reported the beneficial outcome of giving himself 18 days off from reading emails during his August holiday. Writing in his blog, Schlee said: “The encroachment (of emails) is becoming a problem. I wanted to set an example, and so between 14 August and 1 September, I gave myself 18 days off Pret emails. Tell your colleagues, business partners, and teams about your plan. Most of them will congratulate you. Persuade one of your colleagues to look over your emails once a day. It will seem scary but there are many people within Pret to whom I would have entrusted this task. Knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on the business in your absence makes you feel responsible and allows you to let go. If you don’t feel you can do this step, write a carefully crafted out of office message. I am happy to report that the impact of the detox is entirely positive. The relaxation effect of the holiday is increased by at least 100%. This is a wonderful result and needs no explanation. Your team will send each other fewer emails. They know you aren’t reading them and they will make more decisions for themselves. They told me they enjoyed my detox as much as I did. You will find that when you skim through your emails on your return, most of them are trivial or no longer relevant. Who now needs to know the sales in Pret US on Tuesday last week? I have concluded that a great deal of business email is motivated by the need to belong and stay involved and does not generate genuine commercial benefit.”
It was that last sentence, in particular his belief that e-mail’s primary and unstated purpose is to actually nurture a sense of belonging without conveying a commercial benefit that struck a chord.
I worked in a large corporate business for two decades, and witnessed the launch, roll out and ultimately the drug dependency of e-mail communication. In fact, e-mail is not my beef. It’s a wonderful form of communication that knocks down formal barriers, is convenient and largely, when used with some structure and discipline, highly effective. But, now merely part of a communications weaponry that includes instant messaging, web conferencing, file sharing, and the many personal forms of messaging service (Facebook, Tritter, Instagram, Shapchat) that are used in parallel, the management of e-mail has become the work itself. They used to spoil my holidays and time off, not because I was answering them there and then, but rather because despite my best efforts to empty my inbox before I headed off, I knew that I would get back to what? 1000 e-mails a week. If I only I had had the presence of mind to do what Clive Schlee did – although maybe it’s more effective when you make the rules.
For fearing of sounding nostalgic, there was some powerful about writing memorandum and having them put in a ‘For Signature’ folder. I’m not wistful about this: it was a hideously inefficient way of working. But there was one major benefit: your communications were purposed. They were focused. They had to be. Infrequent and high impact was the mantra for a memo. E-mail is the opposite. A surrogate for speech, it has become the default primary communication method in many businesses. Colleagues located metres away from one another send an e-mail rather than have a conversation. Desk phones hardly ever ringing. And the effectiveness of e-mail reducing and reducing as it becomes a constant buzz of background noise.
There are implications for brands in this environment. Despite the proclamations that traditional media is dead, in a world where attention is salami-sliced over multiple forms of communication with scant attention being paid to any, the job of brands cutting through is in some ways easier. The competitor of a client I am currently working broke with contemporary thinking recently and launched a 40 second TV spot on the ad break in Coronation Street on ITV1 on a Friday night, backing it up with 48 sheet posters and epic poster sites in stations and airports. Has it been noticed? You betcha.
And there are implications for us too. Now I have set my own business up and am freed from the daily tidal flow of (mostly) pointless* e-mails designed solely for political purposes or communicating to the world and their dog something 97% irrelevant to them, my work is focused and effective. When I sit down, progress is made. I regularly complete my daily task list. And it feels, to quote a well-known UK price comparison sight, epic. The time for the communication counter-revolution is here.
* Finding the ones with a point used to be a task in itself.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260