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What If Email Got Pantsed?

Workforce talks to Scott Berkun, author and former Microsoft Corp. manager, to hear what he learned from working at the startup company and why email overload is just the tip of the iceberg.

October 14, 2013
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Related Topics: Internet, The Latest, Technology, Talent Management, Workplace Culture
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It’s the work tool we love to hate. At this very moment, your email inbox is being filled with dozens of messages and missives, reminders and rebukes. But there is another way. At Wordpress.com, there is no office, regular mandated meetings, committees or strategic-review presentations, and absolutely no email. Workforce talks to Scott Berkun, author of "The Year Without Pants and the Future of Work" and former Microsoft Corp. manager, to hear what he learned from working at the startup company and why email overload is just the tip of the iceberg.

Scott Berkun, authorWorkforce: Email is so ingrained in the way many of us work. How can internal blogs help us overcome email overload?
Scott Berkun: The problem with email is if I decide that I’ve just made a great 1,000-page Word document and everyone in the company should read it, I can send email out to 500 people across the company. I’m deciding what’s important to everyone. That’s part of the reason why most email inboxes are overloaded. Other people can choose what to put in it. By using a [blog] instead it works the other way. There’s no mandated list of blogs you have to follow in the company. You decide the projects that are important to your work and you follow them. It inverts the power dynamic for communication. We’ve abused what email is good for. If you have information that’s just FYI ... email is a lousy tool for that.

WF: This works at an organization like Wordpress.com where there are 170 people. Are there potential pitfalls as you scale this way of working and communicating across a larger organization?
Berkun: I don’t advocate Wordpress.com as a model that everybody should just copy. Doing that blindly is a mistake. But the question that gets raised by what [Wordpress.com] is doing is important, which is that: If everyone complains about email overload, you should do something about that. But largely what happens is nothing. People complain about the problem and they have a fatalistic attitude that the tools they use are the only tools that will ever exist, that 100 years from now we’ll all still be complaining about all the email forwarding. Of course that’s not going to happen.

WF: You’re suggesting the future of work isn’t purely based around how we communicate but how we organize ourselves.
Berkun: Absolutely. The reason why email is abused is a side effect of how unempowered most workers feel. In order for them to get anything done, they feel like they need to email 100 people to get them to agree to some decision or some change. Email is an attempt for them to get the authority they need to make a decision. If they were more empowered, their need to have all these forwards and debates and discussions and approvals would decline.

If you know your authority is fragile and there are 20 other people elsewhere in the building who could, at any moment, randomly decide to do something that is going to entirely derail what you’ve been doing for the last week, then you’re going to be paying attention to every single email. You’re going to be paranoid that your work is going to be ruined by someone else. So, as a manager, the first recommendation is use your authority to empower the people who work for you so their authority and their confidence isn’t so fragile.

Mike Prokopeak is Workforce's editorial director. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Prokopeak on Twitter at @MikeProkopeak.

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