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.
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It has been four weeks since four of us (Kelly Smith, Jason O'Donnell, Matthew Quimby, Jamel Touati) from IBM Rational Customer Support organization embarked on the Amazing E-mail-Less Man adventure following on the footsteps of Luis Suarez to Work Outside The Inbox (WOTI).
So far we've covered the first three steps of the WOTI process:
- Step 1 - Stop Replying to E-mail
- Step 2 - Group Conversations and Identify Use Cases
- Step 3 - Move Conversations to the Right Home
The fourth (and last but not least) step in the WOTI process is: Step 4 - Record Progress, Set an Example and Act as a Change Agent in the organization. It might not sound that exciting, but we're confident the results will eventually be thrilling!
We've recorded our progress on a weekly basis since we started, tracking our Inbox and Outbox.
The WOTI program began in the middle of week 1 on Wednesday, February 1st (see Fig 1). In Fig 2, the data for week 1 is extrapolated and adjusted to estimate the numbers of e-mails for the missing two days to build a full week. Note that the left side access are the team totals for our inboxes, while the right side axis is our team totals for our outboxes:
We are already seeing some encouraging results!
We are moving in the right direction with lower incoming and outgoing e-mail although we are not yet ready to scream victory ... We are going through a learning process as we continue to educate people on the value of WOTI. This requires passion, persistence and patience! (It took Luis Suarez time before he moved to the Canary Islands! Where would you be if your Inbox were empty?)
We strive to set ourselves as examples, but still act in our own way as change agents in this effort. We exchange our experiences, brainstorm and share knowledge on a weekly basis about what worked for each of us.
Leading organizational change with a great idea like WOTI requires a fundamental belief that there are long term values for ourselves and the overall organization and it is very rewarding to see everyday new adopters of the WOTI way of doing business! We hope that you are also on your way with your own WOTI initiative in your organization, and we'll be very happy to hear about your progress and look forward to learning from each other.
In the meantime, recording is in progress and we'll continue to update you with our findings and experiences in future blogs ...
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Are you wading through a mountain of e-mails upon returning from a long weekend, struggling to catch up? A few of us in Rational Support aren't, and here's why!
Week three of the grand "Working outside of the Inbox" experiment and we're well under way, even starting to see some great traction! People are taking notice across organizational boundaries, reading up, asking questions, and even implementing some of the concepts of WOTI on their own both internally and even externally!
The past few weeks we covered the general overview and launch of this little project: "The Adventure Begins!", moved on to detail out Step 1: "Stop Replying to Email", and then Step 2: "Group Conversations and Identify Use Cases".
Today we're back to tackle Step 3: Moving those conversations/tasks to their appropriate home(s). Slowly and surely.
What does that really mean though? Where do we move conversations to if not e-mail? And how can we move conversations without breaking step 2 "Stop replying"? Well, the simple answer is: we move these to wikis, forums, instant messaging, and phone calls... and sometimes you WILL have to reply to an e-mail. But, you (we) can still reduce the amount by replying with pointers to the right locations for the conversations which we've already setup.
Here's one brilliant example I witnessed since we've started this more organized initiative:
In the past three weeks my colleague Jamel Touati has been the absolute master of this by directing a number of collaboration questions (revolving around problem identification and solution discussions) to forum discussions he built out based on the initial round of emails. In his first replies, Jamel was able to direct everyone cc'd on the e-mails to the forum locations where they could review the content and continue the discussions transparently and standing as perfect examples as to why open knowledge sharing like that is so important. Now, the entire investigation and solution process is visible so anyone with similar questions can see how and why the particular solution was determined to be the correct one. Forums threads like this retain not only the core solution, but the history as well. And once a solution is determined, or an end result is finalized, that information can be distilled and moved to a wiki page for better clarity and readability with a mere pointer to the discussion thread if the history is ever needed.
I also saw a great unexpected personal win last week when I made the realization that I'd run an entire two week project (small internal tool creation) from concept to deployment without sending a single e-mail. I detail a bit of this out on my personal blog, but really the key component to this was the fact I used wikis and instant messaging to transparently collaborate and achieve my project's goal: delivery of a useful internal tool. I unwittingly proved the WOTI concept to myself; that working outside the in-box WORKS and allowed us to be more agile, more transparent, and more effective from start to delivery, and even beyond into demonstrations and minor training (I didn't even use a slide deck, rather recorded a reusable video walk-through)!
Like I said at the start of this post, we're even seeing traction outside of our own small group, and beginning to see other colleagues from within our larger organization, and even across organizational boundaries taking notice and beginning to shift their communications to better venues. It has started taking shape in the form of internal blog posts through our IBM Lotus Connections communities, as well as using "smart wiki pages" to aggregate content based on tags, allowing the conversations to be contained in one community, but made visible across communities through innovative use of RSS feeds and smart tags. Talk about breaking down communications barriers!
Of course, we may be spoiled here in IBM since we have easy access to some industry leading collaboration tools! Of course, that doesn't mean you can't have them too. And even without leading edge tools, you can still tackle some WOTI steps on your own, it's just a matter of identifying the right places for your conversations; be it internal wikis, discussion boards, or even just shared docs in the cloud (insert plug for IBM Docs in beta and available to us all, now!). And yes, to begin with, you may indeed see your out box increase slightly, but in the long run, those emails you'll be sending to guide people to the right places for conversations will fade away and you'll soon find you're using e-mail more effectively and that your work has become more open and transparent, ultimately resulting in more efficient collaboration and success in your projects. All because you were able to identify better venues to capture and share knowledge. Who knows, maybe you'll even see more personal success as people begin identifying you as a thought leader, effective change agent, and all around guru of knowledge management just because you had the audacity to simply stop using email and began working outside the inbox.
Have you started implementing some of your own e-mail reduction efforts? Have you begun your own WOTI initiative? We'd love to hear your success stories as well! After all, this isn't something specific to just Rational Support, or even IBM. Let us know in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or even through Twitter @mentions! We're chomping at the bit to hear your stories in whatever medium you want to share them
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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.
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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!
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