In a bygone era, advertising agencies used to be abuzz with raw energy and excitement. There was never a dull moment. People making deals over the phone, discussing ideas, communicating, meeting with clients face-to-face. But then along came email.
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Email has become the major communication device for pretty much every office-based company anywhere in the world – businesses use it to send out messages to staff and clients, to share files and to delegate tasks. It has not only replaced the telephone conversation, it has even replaced the face-to-face discussion. I have seen staff members who sit next to one another sending emails instead of engaging in dialogue.
Advocates of email suggest it is non-invasive, allowing people to concentrate on their work and to address the email message in their own time, and allowing for uninterrupted working blocks. For instance, this is the view of David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried in the popular business advice book ReWork, in which the authors decry the office meeting and praise email as the non-disruptive solution to business communication.
But what is the cost of email’s firm grip on the workplace?
Emails can cause considerable harm to the culture, collaboration and relationship-building in an office environment. The buzz and energy I mentioned previously slowly fade in the face of an email-laden workplace. When I was a younger agency executive, people would be closing deals over the phone, discussing creative ideas at the photocopier, forming relationships with their peers and building client bonds.
Email has had an impact on that energy – the office floors are quieter; people instinctively turn to email instead of calling a client and building actual personal relationships. The damage to culture and collaboration can have a negative impact on creativity – the best ideas emerge when people are actually communicating with one another.
There is also the problem of professional inconsideration. Emails can encourage staff to push their responsibilities onto other people, without discussing face-to-face whether that person has the capacity to do the work. A staff member will simply send an email assigning a task without actually speaking with their colleague. The natural response of the colleague is to bury the email at the bottom of their ‘to do’ list, and as a result productivity suffers. In contrast, if a staff member walks up to their colleague and has a discussion, it creates empathy, and means the task is more likely to be completed. Meanwhile, an employee is more likely to complete the task themselves rather than offload the responsibility to someone else if they are required to have an actual conversation.
My final gripe with email is that it often becomes a tool for workplaces to contact their staff members on the weekends or during after-work hours. Don’t get me wrong, working in advertising often means a few late nights. But once a staff member has gone home for the day, they should be able to switch off, without feeling constantly tied to their email.
And so, not too long ago, I made the decision to ban internal emails at my agency Atomic 212. We called it the Talk First initiative. The initiative encouraged staff to talk to their colleagues face-to-face instead of using email. This means employees with different skillsets are interacting more frequently, and the idea is that the agency becomes a melting pot of creativity and idea generation. We wanted to create an energy and a buzz about the office.
Of course, an office cannot run on conversation alone. While verbal discussions may improve relationships and creativity, they do not rank highly when it comes to accountability for assigned tasks, and there is also the issue of sharing files. However, this problem is easily solved by simple file sharing tools like Dropbox and tasking programs like Wunderlist. In fact, we have found that Wunderlist actually improves accountability for tasks, because everyone working on a particular project can see who is responsible for what job.
Atomic 212 has been one of the early adopters of this policy in Australia, but we expect the trend to take hold in the coming years.
Atomic 212 Chief Executive Jason Dooris was the 2015 Campaign Agency Head of the Year, and the runner up CEO of the year across all business verticals in CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards. He has been spearheading heaps of cool initiatives – including recently authoring a book called The Digital Lunchbox 2016; and banning internal emails at the agency due to concerns around productivity. Meanwhile, he is a strong industry advocate for industry values such as agency accountability and transparency; and he is also a strong supporter of gender equality in the industry. His agency is also highly awarded, and won the AdNews Media Agency of the Year for 2015, as well as Campaign’s Independent Agency of the Year.