Yup, we're still "working outside the inbox" here.
Along with Luis Suarez Kelly Smith and I continue driving and evangelizing the idea in hopes it will take hold and help create a new business culture of open, transparent, and collaborative work. To that end, I recently built a presentation now hosted on Slideshare to help illustrate our efforts as we documented them here in our Notes from Rational Support "WOTI" blog series. We've tried to distill the core concepts, ideals, and recommendations down to their essence and provide an easy to consume presentation. I hope you not only enjoy the presentation deck, but also find it helpful in your own quest to reduce email and increase your effectiveness.
With Kelly moving on to her new role, we (she and I) thought this would make a perfect time to set another milestone on our Working Outside the Inbox (WOTI) series with some lessons learned, some failures, and some successes as well. Make no mistake though, just because we are recapping our blog series does not mean we are abandoning the WOTI ideas and principles. Far from it, in fact. As you'll find below, from our experiences with the initiative we are more dedicated than ever to using the right tools for open and transparent collaboration.
First up, where did we see our failures?
Jason: I tend to forget to not reply to emails and default back to using email when busy and unfocused. Continuing to use email when there are better alternatives for the conversation I am engaged in (or starting) was my single largest failure over the course of these past six months. I did always feel a pang of guilt when I sent "bad" email though...
Kelly: You'd think I'd know better , but I was expecting magic to happen immediately, as everyone MUST see the innate value of what we are doing. In fact, Working Outside the Inbox is a marathon, not a sprint .... rather, it's a mindshift and a new way of working, one that, through constant exposure and once embedded in one's "muscle memory", becomes the new standard way of working. Like Jason says, it's easy to fall back into old habits, or grow discouraged in the early days. Your results will not be immediate.
But let us not despair, for these failures didn't diminish our successes! Surprisingly, even without dedicated focus or and organized official initiative in place, all of us participating here found some level of reduction in frivolous email.
Jason: Anecdotal evidence showed me that after a week's vacation, my inbox was easily handled within a single day upon returning to the office, a feat unheard of prior to this effort. Most email seen is now in the form of automated notifications which I periodically disable as I add the corresponding wiki or discussion forum to my RSS Reader. All this allows for uncluttered, easy use of "good" email: private communications of confidential or sensitive nature.
Kelly: Success snuck up on me as well ... gradually more and more of the email I received was in the form of automated notifications, and only rarely does my email include slide decks or file attachments, which for me, is the biggest win of all. No more "mail jail"!!!! The volume of email I receive that needs to be processed IN MY INBOX is reduced to onsie-twosies. Everything else is handled in the right place .... Rational Team Concert for work items, commentary and documentation, Connections Communities for shared collaboration and knowledge sharing. Rational Asset Manager as our document repository. So guess what? I don't need to sit with my inbox open all day, addressing the deluge. How cool is THAT?
And lastly, what WERE our lessons learned from all this?
Jason: First and foremost, culture change is a long and difficult road fraught with speed-bumps around every turn. It is frustratingly slow and requires both a deep commitment and resilient spirit. Secondly: sometimes the right thing to do isn't the easiest. There is indeed an initial extra effort we need to take when trying to move conversations to the right tool, and this isn't always an easy task, but the benefits are readily seen once all participants in the conversation are on board.
Kelly: My biggest lesson learned ..... don't reply to email ..... rather, use your email to model the kind of collaborative habits and behavior you hope to see. If people send an email asking for information, DON'T JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION. Provide a link to where you've posted the answer/information for all to benefit from. Persevere in your efforts to work openly, transparently, and collaboratively .... it's the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do.
Shared knowledge is power!
Did you miss any of this blog series? Fret not, faithful readers, here is the complete topic list which you can also find via the woti tag:
Working Outside the Inbox: The Adventure Begins!
Working Outside the Inbox, Step 1: Stop Replying to Email
Working Outside the Inbox, Step 2: Group Conversations and Identify Use Cases
Working Outside the Inbox, Step 3: Move conversations to the right home!
Working Outside the Inbox, Step 4: Record Progress, Set an Example and Act as a Change Agent!
Working Outside the Inbox: Let's Talk About Attachments
Working Outside the Inbox: Speed Bumps ahead!
Working Outside the Inbox: Those pesky status updates
Working Outside the Inbox: Put your Inbox in the upstairs bathroom
Working Outside the Inbox: Returning from vacation
Vacation. The word alone strikes both a visceral and dichotomous chord in any and all who hear it. On one hand it triggers a wistful longing or deep anxiousness to get to it, but on the other hand, well that's where things take a turn... for those of us in the corporate world, vacation means returning to an exploded inbox after a week of ignored email. It means that even as we are away from work, basking in the fact that we have no responsibilities for the week, deep down there is that knowledge and fear of what awaits us upon our return. I'm sure at least a few of us have already recoiled in horror at the thought of actually disconnecting and taking a week's vacation.
Thankfully, a few of us in Rational Support have a tool (or rather, concept) to help us deal with that anxiety which makes returning from vacation so much less stressful: our drive to work outside of the inbox. Now, admittedly, it didn't help me return from vacation wholly without fear, but instead, it assuaged that fear nearly immediately once I did return....
Take a moment and think about the last time you took vacation.... how many emails were waiting for your return? Two hundred? Three hundred? One thousand? Somewhere in between? Enough to make returning to work a daunting proposition I'm sure!
Well, imagine returning to the office to find only 138 total emails in your inbox! Moreso, imagine 50% of those messages being irrelevant spam/sales emails and auto-notifications. That's what I came back to. Now, do the quick math and you'll see that my inbox really only held 64 messages for me which required attention... even more luckily, about half of those were only informational and didn't require any direct action. By the time Monday was over, I was nearly 100% caught up from my prior week off. Prior to our WOTI (working outside the inbox) efforts, being caught up by Monday evening would have been inconceivable; a daydreamer's fantasy at best.
The great news? Just because my inbox was reduced substantially from prior vacations' totals, this doesn't mean I am privy to less information... rather, because of our heavy use of wikis, forums, and blogs, all the information I missed during my time away is still available, relevant, and searchable. Instead of digging in to my inbox to disposition emails and categorize accordingly, most of that content was now visible in my RSS reader and already categorized and dispositioned, or even handled for me via internal crowd sourcing as an effect of the networks of connections around me.
Because this information was now being shared in collaborative spaces instead of siloed inboxes, I was able to be more effective more quickly upon my return from vacation and focus on the work that really matters.
image credit: (cc) Some rights reserved by Sarah_Ackerman
Last week Lifehacker shared out this blog post by Jesse Stormier: "Put Your Inbox in the Upstairs Bathroom". And it immediately clicked for me: living inside the inbox is just too easy. This, of course, makes the shift to living outside the inbox even more difficult, as people don't change until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change.
This really can come down to a chicken or egg issue: is our addiction to email fueled by the ease of use, or is the ease of use driven by our addiction? In either case the solution, in part, is just as easy. In Jesse's post he notes how he switched from a slick GUI client and push notifications to using a command line email client, akin to putting his inbox as far away from him as his upstairs bathroom. Now, for a Unix guru that's a rather elegantly simple solution, as he is more than comfortable with the command line I'm sure. I'm even guessing it would work for a number of you reading this post here on developerWorks as well, knowing your technical excellence often has you playing on the command line.
Me? I'm lazy. While putting my inbox in the upstairs bathroom is a grand idea (my home office is upstairs, so it really isn't much of a trip at all), going as far as using Mutt on the CLI to access it is more akin to putting my inbox in my backyard, or for other people it may even be closer to their postal box down the street. Making email hard to use isn't really the point of "working outside of the inbox". Rather, the intent is to improve our collaborative efforts using tools better suited to the tasks and not automatically default to using email unless it really is the right tool for the job. So, let's make it easy!
Ok, but where's the solution? What's the recommendation? Two simple parts come to mind here:
Turn off notifications- More than anything, notifications are likely the biggest contributor to time wasted in the inbox. It is human nature to want to clear a flag, or notice, or other indicator that there is an email waiting for us. This is even more compounded if you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies at all. The need to address a notice immediately can often be too great to ignore, and thus the interruption occurs. (Just in the time I've taken writing this post I've scurried off to deal with no less than 5 notifications about email messages arriving and awaiting my action.) So turn them off. Notices are much easier to ignore if you can't see them.
Close your email client when you aren't using it- As simple as it sounds, for me this is more akin to putting my inbox in the upstairs bathroom. I don't have to go through the extra effort of accessing it via command line, since the time taken to actively think about checking my messages then open my email client and wait for it to load is sufficient. Out of sight out of mind, right? Don't leave it running but minimized, or in another browser tab but not focused. Close it. Completely.
With these two easy bits covered, my last recommendation will be to schedule specific and focused time in your day to address your inbox messages, freeing you from the shackles of your inbox the rest of the day! I know a few people around here only deal with email first thing in the morning when they arrive to work, and last thing before they leave (in between, of course, is when real work is being done and collaboration occurring all across the organization in the right tools for the jobs at hand). Or perhaps scheduling three times to check: on arrival, right after lunch, and again before leaving for the day.
Regardless of how you go about it, finding what works for you is the key to enjoying a life outside of your inbox. I assure you, it is absolutely worth the mild pain of change!
image credit: (cc) Some rights reserved by eperales
You know the pain: You're on a team, likely in a support role covering the phones on shift work taking calls from clients. Or, perhaps you're on a project team, covering some critical piece of the puzzle, or waiting on a colleague to close out their piece so you can move forward... And your inboxes are bulging at the seams with both critical information as well as those "nice to know" status updates.
In so many cases, we all find ourselves under this barrage of status update emails, FYIs, and other important, yet immediately unnecessary and irrelevant messages. Do we need to know that you'll be off the phones for the next hour or two? Do we need to know you're working from home for half the day? Yes, we likely do. Do we need to know that information right now? No, we only "need to know" when we need to know, and likely will only care or even remember if the information gets to us right at the moment we need to know. Is an e-mail the best, most effective and efficient way to let people know? Likely not.
But what IS the better way? That answer, dear readers, all depends on your team. There is no single best practice or use case to follow here. Each team has differing needs and demands based on location, shift, task, or even management preferences. While I can't do anything for the last, perhaps there are some solutions to address the others which will in turn help convince management of better ways if that is a concern:
Instant messaging statuses: Judicious use of custom status settings here can do wonders to let your team know if you are available or not, on their time, when they need to know. Going off the phones for an hour? A simple Instant Messaging status noting "Off the phones to work a problem" will cover that info for those who need to know, and will be even more appreciated once you're back on the phones and your status has changed again. E-mails aren't the best for quickly changing statuses like these.
Lotus Connections Profile statuses: Working on a project and need help? Want to promote your work? Or out of the office for the day? Updating your Lotus Connections profile status can be a simple and easy way to let people know. This is a little heavier than an IM status, but still light enough and flexible enough to allow for quick updates for often changing statuses.
Intranet wiki page:
Don't have Lotus Connections to provide robust profiles? Have no fear, there are surely wiki solutions already in place in your company, and if not, there are numerous open source solutions to host collaborative wiki pages. I'd recommend these for longer term status updates from daily to weekly as they relate to projects or other work. A table on a wiki page can be easily updated by the entire team depending on how work shifts, and updates can generate auto notifications to let you know when changes have been made... of course you'll probably want to follow those via RSS rather than e-mail
Shared Team Calendars: This one should be rather obvious, and easily implemented if you haven't already. If you're using Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook, you have team calendar functionality and should be using it. This, of course, is for more robust statuses, like days off for holiday or even illness, but shouldn't be overlooked for smaller time frames like meetings and and other time blockers. Smart use of calendaring for your team can not only provide quick views of current availability, but also provide higher level views into team dynamics and show ways to remove blockers as well.
And lets get even more provocative here... internal microblogging:
Assuming you don't want to use external Twitter or Wordpress.com microblogging themes, there ARE internal solutions to microblogging which can be used for team updates. I know the fine folks over at Automattic.com (the crew who develop the WordPress blogging engine) use an internally hosted installation of Wordpress with a robust microblogging theme for their team updates with quite a bit of success! In IBM we even have our own microblogging platform which is available company wide and mimics Twitter in the following/follower and 140 character limit paradigms, perfect for quick status updates.
Of course, implementing a Lotus Connections installation in your corporate topology will allow for nearly all of these alternatives above to be implemented in fashions appropriate for your needs. Yes, I am a bit of a fan-boy convert to the Connections Communities after having used them for the past 4 years with varying degrees of success both as a community owner as well as simple user. I really can't recommend it more, and that's not because I'm an IBMer, I really do believe in the tool!
The real key to success for any of these 'alternatives' to e-mailing statuses, is simple agreement and definition of expectations. If the whole team agrees and expect statuses to be posted to a particular solution, and then of course follows up with actually DOING that, then a successful transition away from e-mail for these use cases will be successful, and provide immediate results.
image credit: (cc) Some rights reserved by LivingOS