how email became work

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

There was a time when your inbox was filled with actual delights. When you would eagerly look forward to checking it, when the “You’ve Got Mail” sound wasn’t cliched and weird but triggered a Pavlovian response. When every thing you found there was from a friend, or a relative, or some rando you met while chatting in a Star Trek chat room; even the spam, when it started arriving, was kinda interesting.

Your inbox was filled with the rare, delicious air of intimacy. Your employer didn’t have access to it — neither, at least in the beginning, did your school. It wasn’t yet an ever replenishing graveyard of every purchase you’ve ever made, of the bills you needed to pay, of the tasks you needed to attend to. Your inbox, in other words, was not your to-do list. It was not work.

Depending on your personality, you checked it once a day, once a week. It was more arduous to access — you had to steal the phone line and then go through the time consuming process of dialing in — and we hadn’t yet adopted the demand for immediacy, for constant pings of small gratification, that would come. The actual mail came every day; it made sense that you’d check your email with the same frequency. Sometimes there was nothing new, so it made it easy to forget about it. But when you did check, it felt like as small, surprising present, one to three parcels, easy to open and easy to reply.

For me, that began to change in college — but we still used Telnet, a program that you pulled up, signed into, and opened. There was no constantly open browser in the background. Somehow, email maintained its deliciousness: we’d send funny missives back and forth that are now relegated to text; emails from larger groups would be well-crafted, clever, with reply chains just as entertaining. Every person in our school of 1200 was somehow able to send emails to the entire campus (some real “Little Mermaid at Columbia” phone message potential, for classic fans of This American Life), and for all of the banal shit, there were amazing, peculiar dramas; esoteric fights; constant knowledge of who was seeking a ride home to Seattle.

When I lived off campus, we didn’t have internet access in our house. In the summer, we’d walk to campus once a day to spend about a half an hour with our inboxes — and that was it. After I graduated, I went to work on a dude ranch outside of Dubois, Wyoming. Once a week, we’d drive into town to spend a half an hour in the internet cafe. Even when I moved to Seattle afterward, there was one computer in the house, in my best friend’s room, and we’d all use it to check our email once a day. All of the massive desktop computers we’d bought in college were obsolete; who had money, as a 22 year old, for a new computer?

What changed? The continued spread of Wifi, but also the mass adoption of laptops — from work, or, in my case, for grad school — and then, of course, the smartphone. Gmail happened. Your email became a repository for bills, for endless advertisements, for eCards and alumni news. Very occasionally, there might be something interesting or novel, but most of actual, valuable interactions had been siphoned off elsewhere: to Facebook, at least at first, and then to text and Instagram.

For freelancers and permalancers — which more and more people were, over the course of the 2000s and 2010s — it was easy for your personal inbox to become your work inbox as well, a perfect illustration of the collapse between work/life balance that accompanies a freelance career. If you had work email, you might have it open beside your personal email in the browser (this is what I always used to) or even blend the inboxes (yes, people do this) or work email might have just slowly cannibalized personal email, to the point you hardly even check it. There’s just your work inbox, and it rules your life.

The shift to from paper to digital organization and communication happened gradually and with great disorder. Next week, Charlie’s going to write about all the reading he’s been doing on that transition, as well as the lessons gleaned from a bunch of bestselling guides to “executive emailing” and other communication strategy books from the 2000s and 2010s that helped us get to our current pit of email despair.

But the way I think of it is somewhat obvious: your to-do list, or “action items” or whatever you call it in your industry, got shifted from physical spaces (and your own head) into your inbox, and then that inbox became portable. And work’s power and pull is such that when it becomes possible to do it elsewhere — especially in a capacity that feels like tidying — it becomes probable that you’ll do it elsewhere. The inbox devours everything it comes in contact with, especially leisure time.

In Work’s Intimacy, the preposterously good book I just finished by Melissa Gregg, she points to the ways that office workers have come to think of email as non-work, or partial-work, or at least work that shouldn’t necessary be compensated, or performed during work hours. In her study of office workers, she hears a similar explanation over and over again for why employees spend their Sunday nights and weekday evenings attending to their inboxes: it would be wasteful to spend the workday emailing, and clearing an inbox ahead of time means the workday itself is less stressful.

Attending to email during off-hours, in other words, makes you more productive during the actual workday. But productive for what? More meetings, more work, that will then generate more emails. “A platform that was first designed to overcome the asynchronous schedules of co-workers has been transformed into its opposite,” Gregg writes. “It is now a means to demonstrate co-presence with colleagues and enhance the pace and immediacy of busy office schedules.”

Over-emailing is a symptom of job insecurity and a sign, perhaps ironically, of an organization with shit communication. People send emails to everyone — directly emailing, instead of cc’ing, or leaving them off the thread entirely — as a means of showing work and covering bases, of overcompensating for lack of trust (bestowed on them or bestowed on others).

And even though everyone resents it, once in place, the framework of over-emailing demands participation: over-emailing becomes the way you show you’re a team player and evidence of your commitment. When everyone is spending their nights filing through their inbox to ready themselves for more email-generating content during the day, to opt out of the cycle is to position yourself as lazy or less committed. Objectively speaking, checking your emails — and sorting and responding to them — in every crevice of the day is a compulsive, fucked up behavior. But we’ve normalized it thoroughly. It’s not burnout behavior; it’s not something workaholics do. It’s just working an office job.

It will surprise no woman that Gregg found this to be particularly true of women, especially mothers who had either opted for a part-time position or “flexible” hours in order to accommodate childcare demands. One mother was only paid for three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), but spent her Tuesdays and Thursdays catching up on email so that she could be fully attentive to all demands when she was officially “on.” Another worked from home on Friday, and felt that she needed to dedicate several additional hours every weeknight and even on weekends in order to demonstrate just how hard she was working. Contingent workers who were paid by the hour felt like they needed to attend to their email in the same way their salaried coworkers did; otherwise how would they ever rise to a salaried job?

Over-emailing and email attentiveness is a version of the Slack LARPing I wrote about last year. Both share a dark heart: they’re motivated by feelings of job insecurity, which is the fault of bad leadership and national economic policy, but they’re largely enforced and amplified by our coworkers. At some point, many years ago, someone sent the first work email; since then, we’ve all been responding, and responding, and responding, in one giant response loop, evidencing we’re working and responsive and alert and attentiveness and a team player and productive and did you know we’re working, but working at what? At clearing our inboxes.

Gregg points out that workplace cultures of teamwork, collaboration, and intimacy — of being friends with your coworkers — is both a symptom of work’s ever-growing envelopment of our lives (we are our jobs) and a corporate tactic. In these situations, you aren’t governed by bosses whose rule you can resent and work to subvert. Instead, power is “distributed” into “horizontal management structures”; the pressure to work all the time doesn’t come from above, it comes from fucking everywhere. As one woman, drowning in her inbox, told me:

The other people in my role are very high-performing, very Type A, very anxious. They don't think the emails are excessive. I think they actually feel that responding to emails is the key component of the job, and they get kind of a "high" because answering people for ten or twelve hours straight makes you feel like you're important and necessary. One co-worker — someone who mentored me and who I really like — once bragged that she sent 75 emails in one day. Ever since then, sometimes I count up the number of emails I send. The most I've ever gotten to was maybe 30. It’s a standard of hyper-responsiveness I continually fail to uphold. 

In these scenarios, not working, whether in the form of not responding to emails, or even just taking a day off, becomes a way of “letting down the team” and slowing everyone else down. You become the blockage and the problem — instead of your employer, who should organizing the workload in ways that make it possible for a person to stop working for a day. This is why women on maternity leave keep checking emails, why people on vacation don’t delete their work email from their phones, why people who technically work 80% jobs often put in just as many hours as those getting paid as full employees. Because we care about each other, and our employers have leveraged that care to their benefit.

Inbox Zero, and other email hygiene techniques, are means of highlighting our efficiency and productivity — but like so many productivity “hacks,” they’re also often ways of creating more work for others. The faster you respond to an email (and I am very guilty of this!) the less thorough you are in the response, which then means more emails. If you’re going through your Inbox at 9 pm on a Friday night, a task that could be very simply resolved with a phone call turns into an email response that spirals on forever. Because email can be sent at all times, it can be responded to at all times. It doesn’t make managing asynchronous schedules easier; it makes everyone else’s schedule your own.

This has proven particularly true for those working from home during the pandemic. If your office already over-emailed, it’s likely gotten even worse. Emails are stress band-aids, after all, and we’re attempting to use them on gaping, gushing wounds. Parents have told me that they receive dozens of emails a day from their children’s schools. Some workers are still trying to manage the load. They preach folders, flags, inbox configurations, ruthless deletion strategies. Others have told me they’ve finally given up entirely. The woman I quoted above has become so overwhelmed with her work inbox that she’ll go months without looking at her personal inbox — which is, well, quite the metaphor.

The pandemic has created new problems but mostly it’s just amplified existing ones. Email is truly intolerable now because it was just barely tolerable before. The fact that we view our failure to manage it as a personal one, our Inbox of Shame, is also instructive. If personal inbox management strategies got us where we are, what’s the solution? It has to be holistic and cultural. It can come in the form of the then-widely-mocked French legislation that those who work for companies with more than 50 employees cannot send or reply to email after official working hours — and similar “Right to Disconnect” Legislation in Italy. In Germany, several major companies have implemented programs that forbid management from contacting workers in any capacity after work hours — or even completely deleting all emails that a worker’s email account receives when they are off.

We all participate in and normalize over-email culture. But so long as it’s a problem that only individuals can solve, then only the most powerful and most secure of us will actually be able to do so — usually by opting out altogether. Everyone else will just scramble, and that scramble will continue on forever, because that’s how long email threads would endure, one Gmail account “just following up” with another long after the global apocalypse.

If you’re a manager or run your own company, you can start thinking about substantive email policies that could radically change workload and overwork in your organization. If you’re part of a small team, you could meet and have a very frank talk about how email has come to function — and how that could change. If you work for yourself, the best suggestion I’ve read is to actually make your email come once a day, like it did back when we didn’t resent it so much — and then ignore it entirely. All of it, truly all of it, can wait; if it can’t, they’ll call you.

Until we can structurally and substantively address, let alone fix, the work environment that’s created over-email culture, there’s still one thing we can do. This applies to people who’ve started ignoring their inboxes, people who refuse to reply to certain people, people who are hyper-attentive, people who roll over to email and email last thing before bed. We all need to spend less time thinking about how we can clear our own inboxes — and a lot more time thinking about how we knowingly and unknowingly add to others’.


Things I Read and Loved This Week:


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