You’re Emailing More Because of Remote Work. Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead

Mar 22, 2021 - 6 minutes read time

Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead - Howard Yu

There are two types of work we do every day. One is reactive, fast-paced, brain-dead work. The second is intentional, slow, effortful work. Most of us have responsibilities in both. 

The danger is that you become so busy that you mindlessly push through all the reactive tasks. You are lost in the busyness. Remember: you are paid to think, to create, and to do the hard stuff. You are not a human router, merely passing information along. 

Remote work is a bold experiment we are all taking part by necessity. But the overall picture looks grim. A recent study by the Harvard Business School analyzed people’s email patterns and online meeting invitations. They sampled three million people from 21,500 companies in 16 cities across North America, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Longer and Noisier Days

Here’s what they’ve found. After COVID lockdown, people saw their average workday lengthen by 8.2 percent. That’s 48.5 minutes more each day. 
Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead - Howard Yu
People sent 5.2 percent more emails. Each email had 2.9 percent more recipients. More people were on CC. 
Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead - Howard Yu
Participants in meetings rose by two, or 14 percent. As a result, people needed to attend 13 percent more meetings. 
Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead - Howard Yu
Of course, the more meetings you have, the more coordination. Here’s an instant message conversation that’s all too common these days.

“We should talk. Let me know when works for you on Zoom.”

“Should we shoot for next week?”

“Sounds good to me. Usually, Tuesday and Friday are the best.” 

“I’m sort of swamped those days. Thursday?”

“Sure, when?”

“Around noon?”

“I could do 11:00, if that’s not too early?”

“I have a conference call at 10:30 and may run over. How does the following week look?”

And so on…

Is it any wonder why people are beyond burned out these days? Remote works mean to many people that their inboxes have become the agenda. The busyness pushes out the important, thoughtful stuff. They don’t get done. So our stress levels go up until the weekend arrives. Then the cycle repeats on Monday. 

Slow Down the Wheel

What we need is to go beyond productivity hacks. It’s not enough to put away your smartphone before going to bed. And yes, some companies have figured this out. The answer is not to spin faster; it’s slowing down the wheel for everyone. 

These are the companies that step-reduce ad hoc communications. They avoid real-time coordination. They build a system that lets employees pull in information, rather than being pushed. 

1. Document more to talk less

This might sound strange at first. But the reason for more emails while working remotely is the lack of chatter around the water cooler. 

The key to driving down ad hoc email then, is to document already-answered questions. Document everything in the open. Everyone contributes to a common source. Add a search engine. People can then search for what they need themselves. No one question should be asked and then answered twice, especially by email.

Can this work? The world’s largest all-remote company have already done so. Gitlab, as I previously wrote,  has some 1,300 employees working across 65 countries. But it has no physical office. Gitlab scaled by “writing things down and recording things,” said Co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij. 

2. Eliminate multiple versions of information

In Sid’s mind, the biggest benefit of “documentation-first” is to ensure a “single source of truth.” Gitlab has a centralized online handbook. It’s a repository on how everything is done at the company. Anybody can update it or create a new page. After changes are made, the employee then raises a “merge request” by selecting other colleagues from the “reviewers” field. The reviewers ensure the content is technically correct and the presentation follows the documentation guidelines

Think about this. It’s crowdsourcing best practices from everyone around the clock. What it does is to codify every piece of tacit know-how inside Gitlab and turn it into something easily transmissible at scale. This is the Toyota Production System applied to knowledge work. With things written, there is no need for the inefficient job shadowing. No new recruit is supposed to learn by osmosis from observing an old master. 

So how big is Gitlab’s handbook? It’s over 10,000 pages long, with more than 4 million entries, and growing. But of course, no one would ever print it. People simply google the guide every day for everything. It the institutional memory for the entire organization. 
Here’s Why You Should Email Less Instead - Howard Yu
Historical Word and Page Counts Of Gitlab’s Handbook

3. Make real-time collaboration sharable instantly

Of course, there are always situations that you must collaborate with others real time. Such might be fewer at Gitlab, but they still exist. Employees are told, in their online handbook, to jump on a video call if they can’t resolve issues after going back and forth more than three times. 

During those conference calls, people open a linked Google Doc. It serves as a whiteboard inside a conference room, but better. Consider: 

  • Everyone can write, not just the most senior person in the room.
  • Font is more readable than handwriting.
  • You can add screenshots to visualize thoughts and add URLs to link to external resources.
  • People can clarify any documentation errors on the spot. No more reviewing meeting minutes days later.

More Human Touch with Less Chatter

Less email doesn’t mean less humane. Gitlab is a very social place. The company runs employee retreats. It brings people face-to-face to build up team spirit. Social bonding is as important as getting things done. 

During these “coworking excursions,” Gitlab throws in mindfulness sessions, inspirational talks, and sporting events. Social events are choreographed, because face time is precious.

Why does this matter? Because less email, less ad hoc coordination, and fewer interruptions make us happier. Cal Newport calls it “deep work.” Our desire to be truly engrossed in doing something is primal. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.” 

What these researchers have shown us is the compelling evidence that people experience pleasure when we dissolve into what we do. When we run a race or solve a complicated logical problem, we forget that we exist. And that’s blissful.

The problem with constant email is that it fragments our attention. Our brains do not multitask, neuroscientists tell us. It only does context switching. We toggle between competing demands. The constant email stream is preventing us from experiencing “flow.” Our inbox is sucking out the joy of your working hours. You deserve better. We have to stop the craze. 

What’s at stake is not merely employee productivity. It’s the way employees experience work, and by extension, the ability of a company to keep its best talents. 

What’s been your experience while working remotely? What do you like about it? What do you miss? What do you dislike the most? Share with us your tips for avoiding burnout.   


Stay healthy,
Howard Yu signature

P.S., This Friday on March 26, I’ll host a virtual meetup at IMD at 11:00 a.m. (CET). My research team and I will unpack how organizations are becoming stronger despite the Covid crisis. Sign up here:

This article is co-authored with Angelo Boutalikakis, a research associate at the LEAP Readiness Project.



Patricia Theis Mar 22, 2021 at 3:33pm

So true, Howard! Thanks so much for sharing a successful example of how to address the challenge we are all dealing with daily for the past year.

Martin Venzky-Stalling Mar 22, 2021 at 12:09pm

In my opinion, the bigger danger than email are instant messaging platforms (Signal, FB, Whatsapp, LINE, WeChat, Skype, Slack also...).

There are even disruptive. I am fighting to get my emails back. Email is for old people some say in Asia. My wife teaches at university and her students send her assignments by FB. I have to remind her reading her email. But then you cannot find anything unlike in Email.

I also agree on the point about emails of course, and what they (the constant disruptions) do to our brains, but compared to instant messenger app.

Github is worth looking into, I think there are more techniques around. Sometimes answering fast just adds to multiplication like rabbits. Take a bit of time, do what is important first.

Willy Sussland Mar 22, 2021 at 12:07pm

Thanks for pointing out facility does not necessarily rhyme with functionality.

N.B. Good example of a picture that's worth 100 words.

Catrina Archer Mar 22, 2021 at 9:23am

These points are spot-on. It's amazing how Gitlab treats their employees, much to learn from all this!

Kier Dawson Mar 22, 2021 at 8:33am

Totally agree. Now many of us are working from home, companies should focus more on how to improve their employees productivity, and spending less time inside email is a step. Less is sometimes more.

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