Company collapses: CEO forgot to check email last night!

Warning! Don’t read this if your company will collapse if you don’t log-in to email tonight!

Do you check your work email

  • when you get home from work in the evening?
  • and again at night before you go to bed?
  • and again before leaving for work in the morning?
  • on weekends?
  • when you are on vacation?
  • on your Blackberry during dinner? / in the bathroom? / while travelling to work?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you must be working in a profession where each email is a life or death matter or you must be so important that your company would collapse in your absence (in which case it’s not a very viable company).

If you answered “no” to all of the above: if your inbox is overflowing with fresh messages by the time you make it into work early in the morning, it’s because there are others in your company who can answer “yes” to some of the above questions. These are the people who ruin it for everyone else.

I’m ashamed to say that in a previous life, I could answer “yes” to all of the above (apart from the BlackBerry ones). I treated each email as a potential matter of life and death, if not for the company then for the rat-race I was participating in.

I realized that this was very unhealthy behavior, but one event in particular sticks in my mind as the turning point. It was the night before I was due to take a rare three-day break with my family at a resort on the Dead Sea. Attempting to clear my desk before leaving, I pulled an all-nighter to plow through my overflowing inbox, so that my team and colleagues would be able to survive my 3-day absence without having to disturb me (which unfortunately was not taboo in the company’s culture). At this point I remember reflecting wistfully on whether I worked for my team and associated matrix or whether they worked for me. The upside of this all-night email session was that I could fire off tens of emails and disappear without having to deal with the replies and resulting email threads as the recipients debated the issues. Or so I thought. At 4 a.m. I noticed that replies had started arriving! I was not the only one processing my email well into the small hours.

If you are in a similar situation, try looking at it from the following perspectives:

  • Your employer uses modern technology to encourage you to stay umbilically connected to work when you’re at home. Does you employer encourage you to bring your family to work with you? Or to chat with them all day via IM?
  • “No one ever gets to their death bed and wishes that they’d spent more time at work”Darren Rowse.
  • If you washed your hands as often as you check email, would people peg you as obsessive-compulsive?

Have you ever asked yourself why you work? If you didn’t need the money would you still be at your current job? Many of you will say “yes”. This is because for many of us, our jobs are challenging enough to give us a sense of achievement and accomplishment, which is just as important as food on the table and a roof over our heads. You must be a real super-achiever if constantly having to check your email does not detract from your feeling of achievement.

I don’t believe anyone who says he can sustain a high quality of work with optimal creativity and insight while being totally immersed in work during almost every waking moment. If you occasionally allow yourself to stop hacking your way through the jungle and rise above the treetops, you will gain a clarity of vision that will enhance your value to your employer, and will also help you to reach an ideal balance between your work and your family.

Let’s end off with something practical. M3 Sweatt writes about one brave manager at Microsoft:

One manager here is so serious about work/life balance that he all but forbids his team from sending emails late into the night (sure, there are exceptions to the rule). But he is able to live within the boundaries by responding to mail ofline after the family goes to bed and then sync’ing mail the next morning at the office.

Why don’t you pluck up the courage to behave like this, and encourage your colleagues to follow suit? (Hey, I just realized the true meaning of en-courage!)


16 responses to “Company collapses: CEO forgot to check email last night!

  1. “Your employer uses modern technology to encourage you to stay umbilically connected to work when you’re at home. Does you employer encourage you to bring your family to work with you? Or to chat with them all day via IM?”

    I brought my dog to work the other day, and one of staff brings his girlfriend along to help with overflow of tasks, a colleagues daughter has spent so much time in our office growing up she could sell most of products and services.

    So… does this mean I should keep checking those work emails at home….

  2. > So… does this mean I should keep checking those work emails at home….

    Only if your dog helps you :-)

  3. My dog would be of help only if I worked at a tennis ball testing facility.

  4. Sadly, less than 1% of the emails that I receive actually DO fit the category of “super-critical-must-be-dealt-with-now-or-else,” but because that number is greater than zero, I do have to check email in the manner you describe to make sure that none of these exist in my inbox.

    However, this is just email scanning– looking through the subject lines for critical items that require your immediate attention. It’s a completely separate task from actually *processing* my inbox, which is something I do a couple times a day on weekdays.

    When scanning, if it isn’t super-critical-needs-immediate-attention-or-else, leave it as unread, and deal with it the next time you’re actually processing. Even if you have 200 messages in your inbox, scanning shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.

    Just because you have a job that requires you to do regular email scanning during off hours doesn’t mean you have to PROCESS email during off hours.

  5. Joseph, that’s a very valid point. It didn’t work well for me — I found myself getting sucked in to work mode too easily, and often an hour or two passed before I finished what started as a “quick peek”. And even when it was just a quick peek — the context-switching while at home was not healthy.

    When I stopped checking email late at night, I realized there would be a price to pay, and occasionally there was a screw-up that I could have caught in time, if I had been constantly checking my email. In my specific case, I reluctantly accepted that the cost/benefit equation actually favored not checking email late at night. It was difficult getting used to the fact that things could run without me for a few hours, but that was the truth. In exceptional cases when something was really urgent, people reached me using the phone.

  6. It is absolutely critical to me to maintain a hard edge between “scanning” and “processing” in this way– I would completely lose sanity if I didn’t. :) When I’m not “working” I’m very disciplined about not digging into things that can wait until the next business morning (and 99.9% of things CAN wait until the next business morning.)

    The nature of my job is such that I have to do the processing… but if I weren’t, I wouldn’t. If you’re in the same boat as me, draw the same hard line, and don’t fall off the wagon.

  7. Agreed. Discipline is one of the keys to efficient use of email, and unfortunately it’s quite rare.

  8. I now receive around 150 emails a day. I’m sure there will be some saying that I’m let off lightly. But as Joseph implies a good half of these really don’t need to come to me. It’s people thinking they are covering their arses, or copying me because they think it will influence a decision or somebody else. If we went back to the written or typed memo you can guarantee these communications would not have been sent. I have refused a Blackberry on a number of occasions. Do I really want to be picking up emails when at the restaurant or on the train? These are the only times we have away from work now “working from home” is no longer another way of saying “I’m gonna chill out / go to footballl / stay in bed with the girlfriend and come back on Monday with a page of scribbles that took me half an hour ot complete”

  9. Really, this is a disease: I have to check my email every ten minutes because I’m addicted to the sound Outlook makes when I receive a message. I become depressed when there are no messages. Fortunately, there’s always spam to cheer up my day.

  10. I’m infected as well.
    I will stop dead in my tracks and return to my PC as soon as I hear a new message come in.
    When I’m out I get a text message on my cell phone for any new email of interest (based on filters).

    Combined, I can usually be aware of an email within the hour 24 hours a day.

    Is that normal?

  11. Ed, I think it’s more useful to ask “is that healthy?”

  12. I find it very hard to draw the line between “scanning” and “processing”. 1: Other staff have a way of not wording subject lines appropriately and you may find that the action required inside the email does not match the subject. 2: After scanning and making a mental-note of what action is required this stays in your subconcious mind until processing. Myself, if I can do an action immediately I’ll do it then, rather than having it bugging me for the rest of the night.

  13. To Bren regarding inappropriate email subjects: If you’re having difficulty with people’s email subjects, try initiating a new ‘subject convention’ within your organization or team where the first word of the subject specifically marks what is needed. Start changing your email subjects to look like ACTION: Next Week’s Visitors / FYI: Bob’s on Vacation / MEETING: Next Week’s Visitors / QUESTION: The Bigman Project / ANSWER: The Bigman Project. Once it catches on, it can be especially helpful for those times you sort by subject.

  14. First off, I think it’s kind of sad we have made ourselves “always available” for work like this. I’ve got a bad situation – I work evenings over the weekends – and from home. I’ve got to the point where I *can* just do a quick scan to see if that emergency email comes in, but it’s bad because I’m always on the computer, so I am 1/10 of the way to being at work at least 10 hours a day, every day.

    Definately not healthy – I need an outdoor hobby…

  15. Oh, how I see my former workaholic self in this article. A great read and hopefully a wake up call to others who chose to give away their precious private home time.

  16. Nope unless your dog is delivering the mail that you can’t send by email ;)

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