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Gini Dietrich

An Email Ban? Are You Kidding?

By: Gini Dietrich | June 9, 2009 | 
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Yes, it’s true. We instituted an internal email ban at Arment Dietrich. Well, it started as an email ban and now it also includes instant messaging.

It all started when my colleague, Christine Heim, blogged about an internal email boycott by a single woman in an effort to communicate better at work (see it here). We discussed during our weekly meeting, but I wasn’t convinced. I mean, I travel a ton and I work odd hours. How was I going to communicate with everyone here during non-office hours?

But then I began to hear rumblings that we were having conflict conversations over email…in order to avoid the person, but still say what had to be said.

So that did it. On May 7 we instituted a 10 day email ban and decided we would discuss during the May 18 staff meeting.

Don’t get me wrong. It was HARD. Especially for me…who is addicted to my BlackBerry and sends notes whenever I think of something: The middle of the night, on a plane, on my bike, in the shower.

But a funny thing happened. We began talking to one another…IN PERSON! If someone had a question, it didn’t fill my inbox or sit there for two or three days; it got answered immediately because they came into my office and asked. But it wasn’t a good thing just for me.

With email, you don’t hear the tone in someone’s voice, nor can you quickly ask for clarification. Instead, your find yourself analyzing the message: Do they sound upbeat? Are they upset? Do they not care? Now that we’re talking face-to-face, the unknowns are gone and we get to the answer much more quickly.

So on May 18, we discussed and people said they really liked it, but I also learned those conflict conversations were still happening…but now on instant messaging and not in email. EVEN WORSE!

Now we don’t use either…except to send links back and forth or to ask for a few minutes of someone’s time. During yesterday’s staff meeting, I asked for feedback.

Following are some tidbits:

* I find I think of solutions before presenting problems, if I know I have to have a conversation about it. Before, I   would just send an email and check it off my list, making it someone else’s problem.

* It’s easy to miss something when your inbox is cluttered. Now, if I get an internal email, I know it’s important and I can’t let it sit there.

* It was difficult to adjust to at first, but now it’s A LOT easier to correctly communicate needs.

* It’s easy to take an email or instant message wrong, because you don’t hear the tone of the person’s voice. Now we have less conflict because we’re talking to one another.

* I actually find it silly now when I don’t go talk to someone. It’s made me more relaxed because I feel closer to my   colleagues, but also because I don’t come to work on Monday morning to 100 emails. Now when I hear people ask, “What did we do without email?” I know the answer is, “We had conversations!

* This boycott has fostered increased communication and accountability.

People ask me all the time, “What about Twitter? What about Facebook?” We still use technology to get what we need, and in a timely manner, just not INTERNALLY!

I contend that if you have multiple offices (though the phone works, too!) or work virtually, the internal email boycott probably doesn’t work. But for those of you who go to an office and see the same people every day, you should try talking to them, instead of sending them an email. See what happens!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

25 comments
Rusty Speidel
Rusty Speidel

As I have said a kabillion times to no one in particular, these tools are nothing more than that--tools. They enable you to do better (or worse) what you should already be doing. Talking, communicating, convincing, connecting--being human. It was almost better in the ancient times before 1984, when you had to really make an EFFORT to connect. But well done, these tools can really create some powerful moments. So use 'em right!

I'd give up email in a heartbeat if everyone else would...

Zofia Dripps
Zofia Dripps

Gini,
Good communication can never be replaced with even the best technology. I spent 10 years of my life helping to develop wireless technology and love all of the latest means to mass update hundreds of people at once, but your ban on email may be a bit extreme. I propose a modified version...at AT&T Wireless I instituted a mandate for my group that if you could not find the answer you wanted in 3 emails, it was mandatory that you pick up the phone. Imagine a telecommunications corporation avoiding the very device that moved us to the top of the industry. What we uncovered was very much what you shared; people developing professional working 'relationships' and reduced conflict. This is where your article is right on. Tone of voice is critical when conveying a sensitive remark.

My pet peeve now is emails from the person sitting in the office next door. Could we also use email bans to fight the obesity problem in the US? A two-for-one, better communications and healthier employees :-)

Shandra Blackwell
Shandra Blackwell

Gini,

Absolutely fantastic that it is working so well for you. This has worked great for us in our inner-office communication area as well!

The best situation this has worked in for me is through my service on a national board for a non-profit. We are located throughout the country and were having problems with emails getting sent, no responses, back pedaling out of committed situations, etc. We put a ban on email and this actually prevented a halt to a 2.2 million dollar project.

It definitely can work outside of the office. Especially when you are serving in a volunteer capacity and have a lot coming your way.

Dave Moley
Dave Moley

This is a subject close to my heart, since I am an advocate of professional communication (including email) not so much TM. Plus, as parent, I enjoyed your article, because it sounds like "time-out"

Over the years, in this corporate world, I have compiled a list of commandments for all of my corporate communication.

1. Always write to the level of your audience
2. Do not say anything in email that would make you look bad, if someone else read it (i.e. no talking bad about another's process)
3. No smiley faces, emoticons or cool trendy slang
4. Never engage in a back-and-forth circle argument. the second it comes back to you as a debate, cease the email thread, and call.
5. No attachments of living documents. (i.e. That Word doc you've been working on with multiple versions. Upload to a central document repository and send the link ) It is too easy for multiple versions to start floating around in inboxes, and someone start references the wrong version. If you always send out the same link, you will always be secure the correct version is out there. Also, it keeps email size down, better for mobile people
6. TextMessages should be avoided,

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

Clay...interesting. We've actually found the opposite. People are more accountable now than they were when working through email. No one has missed a deadline, including myself, because it doesn't get bogged down in your inbox. But I will tell you we thought we'd only try it for 10 days. When we discovered it was working really well for us, we decided to continue.

Rach...I miss you!

Rachael
Rachael

Love the article. Indeed, email communication leaves so much unsaid. In fact, my assistant recently moved away and I was confident that we could still make it work through various forms of online communication and phone calls. But I learned in just a few days that being able to turn to your co-worker and discuss problems is more valuable than any other mode of communication. Furthermore, I'm bad at typing and hate that dancing around these keys is always standing between me and my message.

Clay
Clay

This is a very interesting, but I'm not sure this is the best approach for our group. Too often we've had one or two employees use the fact that they don't remember seeing it as a way to get out of doing something or being held accountable for something they've been assigned. The email or IM is the evidence. I know that sounds bad and that we're trying to catch someone, but not all employees are created equal.

However, some things are better verbalized than sent in an email, and conflict is always better in person, albeit awkward.

I think we might give some aspects a try. If we do, we'll let you know the outcome.

Perri
Perri

Brilliant, Gini. I'm gonna see if we can incorporate this into our corporate culture.

Brett Miller
Brett Miller

Great article! Very enjoyable read. I don't think bans (temporary or permanent) of internal email is a long term solution. We have these types of technologies to improve communication. Email is great for group communication and longer term documentation of conversations. Interpersonal relationships are built based on direct in person or phone conversations. It's very difficult to build these same strong relationships via email/messaging.

We simply need to limit email/messaging usage to a more appropriate context. Strong relationships are only built through in person communication.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

Wow Simon. Tell us how you really feel! :)

We haven't banned it entirely...just for internal conversations that need to happen in person. There was too much avoidance of talking to one another. Now it's a very nice balance of using the technology when necessary, but also talking to one another.

Simon Wharton
Simon Wharton

This makes as much sense as a conversation ban. Use the right medium for the message rather than banning an essential business tool

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

I'm certainly guilty of sitting in an airport, late at night, thinking of things I need to do or need help with, and shooting off an email. Now I think twice (or sometimes three times) about it. Instead of sending an email, I jot myself a note (or send myself an email) and either call the person during office hours (if I'm traveling) or wait until I see them during the day.

Now...are all four of you going to try this??

Len
Len

What happenned when the blackberry became popular? Did it make it easier for us to send and read email? You bet. It also created MORE email. I have no stats to prove this, but I have a feeling that when people sit at an airport, bus stop, etc they send email for reasons none other than to show they are busy. Kudos on this move. Let's bring a bit of "social media" back into real life.

Tim Jahn
Tim Jahn

I think this is a fantastic idea. Too many offices are becoming "lazy" and instant messaging or emailing people that are simply in the next room or literally sitting behind them.

As the saying in video editing goes, garbage in, garbage out. If a company isn't personal internally, they're not going to be very personal toward their clients.

Ces
Ces

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away! (Previous marriage around 1985) Our TV broke and we were "cash poor", so we waited about 2 months to buy a new one! During the 2 months that we were TVless, our communication improved. I see a direct correlation to your "internal email boycott"!! My vote is for a permanent internal email ban!!

Brice
Brice

I think this was a great idea Gini. We have definitely become too reliant upon email and IM as a means of communication with the person across the hall. Whether used to pass the buck, avoid confrontation, or just ask a simple question it is creating an office society that doesn't know how to handle anything unless it's emailed to them. In addition, we are so paranoid that everything needs to have a "paper trail" just in case something goes awry. I will admit that I have been guilty of these charges as well but what is the point of coming into an office if I'm just going to email and IM everyone my questions. Like the old saying goes, don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today. Or rather, don't email me a question you could have had answered three times over in the time it took to type the email... that's now buried in my inbox.

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