E-Mail-Driven Work

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – January 12, 2009

On my very first day at SAP, I was introduced to two software applications: R/Mail and Kale. Even though I had some prior experience with e-mail at university, where I had used Eudora, I had no idea how important this tool would become for my work. In my early years at SAP, I printed out a lot of mails that I thought were important for my work and sorted them into real folders. If I continued to do this today, I would probably spend all my time printing and sorting my e-mails...

Photo of Gerd WaloszekA few years later, SAP added the work-flow feature to its application suite, and many colleagues were not enthusiastic about the prospect of having their work days dictated to them by a work-flow inbox. Admittedly, I still don't have a work-flow inbox that navigates me through my work days, but I have found a very effective replacement for it: my e-mail inbox. Over the years, not only has Microsoft Outlook replaced R/Mail and Kale, with the Microsoft solution combining the functionalities of the latter two products and ultimately offering even more features than both applications ever offered, but e-mail has also become a dominant driving force in my work and a communications and information medium – despite the fact that other media, such as SAP Corporate Portal, compete with e-mail. These media are, however, mainly "pull" media, whereas e-mail is a "push and pull" medium – at least it is if you never close the e-mail application. Moreover, like ordinary mail, e-mail is directed at specific people (with the exception of the "e-mail to all" option), making it a much more selective medium than a portal or Website.

The following remarks are based on my work at SAP, but I expect that people working in other companies have similar experiences.

 

Type of Tasks

In my case, e-mail is typically a driver for incoming tasks that need to be done within a short time frame, ranging from "at once" to "within a few days." I find it fairly difficult to keep track of tasks over a longer period of time using an e-mail inbox. For tasks that extend over a larger time frame or are to be done later, I still use a piece of paper on which I keep a "To Do" list. This allows me to strike through tasks that I have finished, giving me a wonderful and satisfying feeling that no Personal Information Manager (PIM) application could ever provide.

 

Style of Use

At SAP, e-mail is typically used like an instant messenger (some colleagues use one of these as well): Colleagues expect fast responses. In some cases, they may even call you on the phone or come to your room if you do not respond fast enough. This expectation refers mainly to colleagues at a similar organizational level and not so much to e-mails to managers. Managers may behave very differently, depending on their personal style and rank: some respond immediately, some within one or two weeks, some never...

 

Communication and Coordination

E-mail is primarily a medium that enables communication over long distances and across time zones. While you can call someone in a distant country on the phone, you cannot send him or her a presentation, document, or anything else over the phone. On the other hand, e-mail works like an intercom not a phone, which means you cannot be sure whether the recipient of your e-mails understands your intentions. As a result and to improve the reliability of the communication, simple matters can easily result in a lot of e-mail traffic (up to 20 e-mails and more – including a few courtesy e-mails) that distracts from other work and costs time. Many of these affairs could be settled within a matter of minutes by meeting in person or on the phone. I often ask myself why it is that even colleagues who sit nearby do not come to my room or use the phone. In some cases, the reason seems to be that an e-mail is discreet.

While e-mail enables colleagues from different continents to communicate with each other, the time shift can also cause communication delays of a day and more. This is particularly true between colleagues in Germany and the USA, China, or Japan because there is little overlap in working hours. Colleagues in India or Israel are easier to contact on the phone or in a direct e-mail exchange.

E-mail contact cannot replace every form of personal communication, as is often assumed. E-mails often lack essential contextual information, often making communication unreliable and ambiguous and resulting in misunderstandings. As already stated above, to clarify issues, we often have to send a number of e-mails to and fro. Because of these downsides, it is better to discuss critical issues on the phone or, if possible, face to face. Regrettably, this is not always feasible in distributed work environments. Therefore, a good habit to get into is to not reply immediately to a critical e-mail, particularly if you are in a state of irritation, but to wait at least a couple of hours or even sleep on the issue, if time allows it. Delaying your response in this way often helps you to calm down and gain a better understanding of the other side's arguments.

 

Information (Overflow)

The complaints about overflowing inboxes refer mainly to information e-mails. Not one day goes by when I do not get a newsletter or other kind of "useful" information, such as, for example, the canteen will close earlier on a certain day (often forwarded by several secretaries, thus filling my inbox several times). I have therefore got into the habit of simply pressing the "Delete" button. But as I myself send a newsletter once a month, I am not really happy with such a behavior. In addition, there is an increasing trend at SAP to base newsletters on official templates that contain images, thus filling my inbox with lots of kilobytes and even megabytes. Presentations are another inbox disaster, because they typically eat up megabytes and thus my quota. As a result, I receive warning messages that I will not be able to receive further e-mails if I do not clean up my e-mail account.

There are colleagues who claim to have more than a thousand (unread?) e-mails in their inbox. Luckily, I am not one of these people whose e-mail inboxes are in a permanent state of overflow. I try to keep my inbox clearly arranged, but there is also an outbox, which can be the cause of a blocking warning...

 

Cultural Differences

One might come to believe that modern electronic media such as e-mail are "universal" and used in the same way all over the world. This is, of course, not the case at all. I mentioned already that e-mails to managers are a different affair. As I have found out, this is even more so the case when I send e-mails to managers in other countries.

Typically, managers in India do not respond to my e-mails because they expect to receive e-mails from other managers, not ordinary employees. As a consequence, I ask my direct manager to send my e-mails to other managers when I want to make sure that they are being read.

American colleagues seem to "cc" their managers on many more e-mails than their European colleagues would do. The latter tend to think that their US colleagues want to aggrandize themselves, but for them, it is just standard practice.

As another example, I initially found the way that American colleagues begin an e-mail ("Gerd, ") somewhat rude, being used to beginning an e-mail with "Hello" or "Dear." But I have since learned that this is the usual form of address there. I now use this introduction myself when sending e-mails to (some) American colleagues. As a rule of thumb for my e-mails, I replicate the style of the addressee (provided that he or she sent an e-mail first). Perhaps some American colleagues are doing the same when they start their e-mails with "Dear/Hello Gerd."

 

Conclusions

E-mail has become a prominent and sometimes dominant aspect of my work life. Typically, it determines what has to be done in the short run. Moreover, it has become a communications medium that helps coordinate work with colleagues from all over the world, making some things possible that were not even conceivable before, but also making a lot of things laborious. In addition, e-mail has turned into a "push" medium for distributing information, competing with other information media such as intranets, which are primarily "pull" media. All in all, e-mail has changed our work style in so many ways that it is hard to imagine how we have ever lived without it. It is, however, even harder to speculate what medium and technology will replace it.

 

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