Book Insights: A World Without Email by Cal Newport

communication at work

This article is part of our Book Insights series where we look at key books on business leadership and management and highlight how you can learn from them and apply those lessons. 

It’s become a universal truth that the way we work today is more stressful and frenetic than ever before. Not only are we responsible for getting our actual work done, we also have to manage the ever-growing flood of communications about work that comes our way — often well before or after official working hours. 

Georgetown Computer Science Professor Cal Newport has written numerous books on success, productivity, and business culture. And his latest A World Without Email takes on the difficult problem of why modern technology such as email, which was intended to improve workplace communication, has actually made office life more complicated. 

The Hyperactive Hive Mind

For Newport, the modern office is defined by the Hyperactive Hive Mind — “a collective intelligence of many different brains tethered electronically into a dynamic ebb and flow of information and concurrent conversations.” Essentially, modern communication tools such as email and chat apps have made it possible for workers to communicate and collaborate at a far faster pace than ever before, often jumping between multiple projects within a matter of minutes. 

The problem, according to Newport, is that this is actually a terrible way of organizing work. For one, our brains aren’t wired to constantly skip between tasks, and doing so creates a fragmented workday that not only leaves us in a state of constant stress and anxiety but degrades our work output. We just aren’t made for it. 

The other problem is that allowing the Hive Mind to organize work is poor management strategy. Rather than choosing our tasks deliberately and executing them with focus, we allow our inboxes and chat channels to point us where to go and what to do next. The inmates are running the asylum — or at least scheduling its daily activities. 

How Technology Gets What It Wants

“First we build the tools, then they build us.” 

― Marshall McLuhan

So why do we allow our inboxes to schedule our days for us? Email was never intended to become work in itself. It was supposed to be a faster alternative to intra-office traditional mail. But technology has a logic in and of itself, regardless of what we intended. 

Newport offers the example of the Facebook ‘like’ button. Originally created to clean up comment sections flooded with one word responses such as “cool” or “awesome,” the like button ended up altering the experience of being online. Getting likes on a post became a public display of social affirmation. Users began optimizing their posts to increase likes. Suddenly a feature created to clean up comment sections became a social media end in itself — a result no engineer ever imagined.

The parallels with email and chat are clear. But how do companies overcome the unintended consequences of tapping into the hyperactive hive mind? Is it even possible to go back? Newport thinks it is, although no one has really figured it out yet. However, he does offer advice for making improvements in the right direction. 

The Next Model T Revolution

Henry Ford revolutionized the manufacturing process forever when he developed the line assembly work process in place of the old craft process. Whereas the craft process required a dozen or so workers to crowd around a single car and spontaneously organize its assembly (sound familiar?), line assembly focused each worker on one repeatable, highly-choreographed action. 

Newport believes the next Henry Ford-type revolution will come in the workflow processes of knowledge workers. And he believes that companies and managers have a massive role to play in this change. 

no more emailThe first thing managers should do is discard (or at least reconsider) the reigning philosophy of granting employees complete autonomy to organize their work processes and communication. While knowledge workers can’t be lined up on assembly lines to write compelling ad copy or crunch spreadsheets, they can and should be given guidelines on how to best track projects and communicate information. 

Newport highlights a distinction here between two elements: “workflow execution” and “workflow processes.” Workflow execution is the act of actually doing work. While workflow processes are how we talk about and organize work. The latter is where the gains are to be had. And that means pushing back against the frenetic flood of disconnected messages. 

Focus on Process Over People

Rather than submit to the hive mind, managers should actively and deliberately develop better workflow processes with the input of their teams. The goal of these processes should be to “better optimize the human brain’s ability to substantially add value to information.” In short, to do our work with deep and deliberate focus so that it is of the highest quality. (No surprise, Newport wrote a previous book was called “Deep Work.”)

This means focusing on reducing the amount of task switching and minimizing the feeling of communication overload. To a large extent, the exact remedy for this will depend on individual organizations, because no one has really figured it out. But it is incumbent on managers to experiment with solutions. 

In contrast to the hyperfocus of so many companies on people (hiring the perfect candidate), Newport foregrounds processes. He says, “Introducing smart production processes to knowledge work can dramatically increase performance and make the work much less draining.” 

So what makes a good workflow process? Newport divides it into three elements: 

  1. It’s easy to review who’s working on what and how it’s progressing.
  2. The work can happen with minimal unscheduled communication.
  3. There’s a known procedure for updating assignments as they progress. 

The most common ways of implementing these are through either scrum or Kanban-style task boards. These protocols dictate how projects are prioritized, tracked, and discussed, thus eliminating the need for employees to conjure up the Hyperactive Hive Mind in the first place. 

While no individual worker can unilaterally decide to stop checking Slack, organizations and the managers who lead teams must start building better, more thoughtful processes for how employees organize their work and communicate it to colleagues. 

The companies who fail to move away from the dysfunctional hive mind will suffer and, ultimately, get left behind. 

Check out our previous post, Book Insights: The Career Toolkit, for more recommended reading.

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