This is a long-winded way of saying I can feel organizational psychologist Adam Grant loudly judging me. Writing in the New York Times last week, Grant argued: “You would never snub a colleague trying to strike up a conversation. Yet when you ignore a personal email, that’s exactly what you’ve done: digital snubbery. . . . [V]olume isn’t an excuse for not replying. Ignoring email is an act of incivility.”
To be clear, Grant is not suggesting that every stray query be answered. But he suggests one’s ability to answer email is a sign of other valued attributes in the workplace:
“I’m too busy to answer your email” really means “Your email is not a priority for me right now.” That’s a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It’s full of other people’s priorities. But there’s a growing body of evidence that if you care about being good at your job, your inbox should be a priority. ...When researchers compiled a huge database of the digital habits of teams at Microsoft, they found that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager was being slow to answer emails. Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious — organized, dependable and hardworking. And that matters. In a comprehensive analysis of people in hundreds of occupations, conscientiousness was the single best personality predictor of job performance.
Grant makes a potent case. There are several possible rebuttals, and I desperately want at least one of them to be true so I don’t need to answer every email.
First, what if one doesn’t want to be a good manager? By this I am not expressing a desire to be a bad manager, though that is what I would probably be. Rather, my desire is to not manage much at all and focus on the other aspects of my job. I am paid to be a professor and a columnist. I teach and research and write. Sure, these tasks require some management skills, but they are not the primary or even secondary aspects of the job.
Of course, email is nonetheless an omnipresent element of my day. Grant analogizes it to face-to-face interactions. This omits one of the more pernicious effects of email, which is that it enabled numerous for-profit and nonprofit organizations to radically reduce support staff. Or, to think of Grant’s analogy another way, the problem is not the colleague who wants to have a chat with me, or the student who seeks my guidance. The problem is all the other people that a traditional secretary would have been able to have handled.
Cal Newport makes this point in an interesting Chronicle of Higher Education essay:
As the economist Peter G. Sassone observed in the early 1990s, personal computers made administrative tasks just easy enough to eliminate the need for dedicated support staff — you could now type your own memos using a word processor or file expenses directly through an intranet portal. In the short term, these changes seemed to save money. But as Sassone documents, shifting administrative tasks to high-skilled employees led to a decrease in their productivity, which reduced revenue — creating losses that often surpassed the amount of money saved by cuts to support staff. He describes this effect as a diminishment of “intellectual specialization,” and it’s a dynamic that’s not spared higher education, where professors spend an increasing amount of time dealing with the administrative substrate of their institutions through electronic interfaces.In 2014, the Boise State anthropologist John Ziker released the results of a faculty time-use study, which found that the average professor spent a little over 60 hours a week working, with 30 percent of that time dedicated to email and meetings. Anecdotal reports hint that this allocation has only gotten worse over the past five years. “The days of the ivory tower are a distant memory,” concludes Ziker, and many burnt-out professors agree.
Newport, the author of “Deep Work,” goes on to suggest “a reorganization of academic life to support careful thought and sustained attention.” It sounds seductive, but it also cuts against the current university mania for “impact” and engagement” — i.e., ensuring professors do as much as possible to market their research to as wide a community as possible.
Much as I would like to cut the email cord, it is no longer possible. But I will try to take Grant’s more useful bits of advice to navigate my online correspondence. His suggestion to “start the morning by answering a few emails” to “get into a productive rhythm of deep work” is a good one. Trading social media time for more correspondence is not the worst idea in 2019.