Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

This Company Eliminated E-mail…and Nothing Bad Happened

February 16th, 2015 · 24 comments

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Super Casual Friday

Last week, an article in the Washington Post caught my attention. It was titled, “At some start-ups, Friday is so casual that it’s not even a work day,” and it focused on an Oregon-based tech company called Treehouse.

This company, it turns out, offers an unusual perk to its employees: no work on Friday.

The idea of a four day week upset people in the tech world. Michael Arrington, for example, responded:

“As far as I’m concerned, working 32 hours a week is a part-time job…I look for founders who are really passionate. Who want to work all the time. That shows they care about what they’re doing, and they’re going to be successful.”

But here’s the thing: Treehouse is successful.

The company, which offers online courses, has enrolled over 100,000 students and raised over $13 million in funding. Last year saw 100% revenue growth, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they have near 100% employee retention.

A Deep Paradox

At first, this might seem like a paradox: Treehouse reduced working hours yet didn’t reduce its effectiveness. The solution comes later in the article when the company’s founder explains:

“That’s the key. Do what’s important for you. Then, when you have time, respond to things…I’ve definitely worked in environments where all I did was e-mail. Now, internally, there’s almost zero. That’s a huge, huge win for the company.”

He elaborates that he’s eliminated an e-mail-centric cult of connectivity at Treehouse. Employees communicate in forums dedicated to specific projects, and the expectation that you can and should receive instant answers to your electronic missives doesn’t exist.

The solution to our above paradox, in other words, is that the eight hours cut from Treehouse employees’ weekly schedule disproportionately affected shallow efforts (namely: preserving a culture of constant e-mail connectivity). The reason their company still thrives is that the deep efforts that matter most remained unmolested.

This interpretation, if true, provides another piece of evidence for a conclusion I’ve been pitching for a while here on Study Hacks: a lot of the busyness afflicting the burnt out knowledge work class isn’t actually producing much value.

If more companies (and individuals) followed Treehouse’s lead and actually tested the conventional wisdom that all of this distracting shallowness is vital, I suspect we’d suddenly see a lot more emphasis on deep work in our cultural conversation surrounding productivity and effectiveness.

24 thoughts on “This Company Eliminated E-mail…and Nothing Bad Happened

  1. Another great example of via negativa productivity – how eliminating things (in this case e-mail) can lead to improved results.

    I’ve started to batch my social media/e-mail tasks to twice a week, which frees up my time for things like… commenting on this blog 🙂

  2. Emailing has become a disease in many corporates. Many of them don’t look at this time-chewing practice as a organizational negative because it makes people feel busy (working), helps to lift the topic/ task/challenge to higher levels or horizontally. Many times it helps to diffuse the accountability of personnel who should be completing the task and reporting results.

  3. Fatos Morina says:

    This can be easily summarized that companies, especially startups, should constantly test new assumptions that conventional mindset would take them only as they appear first.

  4. Kal says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thanks for highlighting new evidence of deep work in relation to organisational success. However, I feel this only applies to small companies/start-ups. I’m working as a research trainee in a large hospital which gives its email and phone calls some serious importance. Almost everything is communicated via emails. I find it difficult to focus on my work and develop deep work habits that will actually work in this organisation. What are your views on large organisations in developing deep work and getting out of the pseudo work routine.

    P.S. Congrats on the new born!

    1. Dan says:

      I work at a hospital as well, and while I am not constantly e-mailing, I do need email and a phone to get my job done, and others need to reach me. I don’t have the type of job that lets me sit and work on a project for 2-4 hours very often. But I love Cal’s blog and book and wanted to apply it.

      I’ve tried to split my tasks into shallower and deeper work. Sometimes I need all my focused faculties to plan, and that can be deep, especially visualizing an outcome and seeing what steps need to get accomplished. Other things don’t – I might call another hospital in the company and pick someone’s brain or get some information for ten minutes. It’s not difficult, but it is necessary and useful.

      Perhaps your hospital has a culture of immediate response, but mine does not. E-mail is a big deal, but delays are common, and I don’t send one out expecting to get the answer within the day. You may be able to get away with batching emails and contacting all at once, and do that one or two times a day.

      Maybe an easier way to identify more challenging/deep work tasks is to find the ones that you are most easily distracted from, and the ones that are hardest to sustain an effort on. Those might have the greatest reward for some focused effort.

      1. KAL says:

        Thanks Dan!

        That solves it. I myself feel pressured to reply to emails soon enough as I once I open my inbox to check for urgent emails, I generally look at all of them. I’ll just have to stop this habit and start batch emailing like you suggest.

        Regards,
        KAL

    2. John says:

      I work at a large hospital and have worked at hospitals for most of my personal career:

      1. Hospital A. I limited myself to checking email twice per day (10:30 am and 2:30 pm). I turned off Outlook at other times and became much more efficient. I was also working from home towards the end, and if it was time-critical, people called me. This was not the culture but people conformed to my patterns if they wanted me on their team.

      2. Hospital B. I had to sit on email, and I became much less efficient.

      3. Hospital C. I keep my email open, and we just went through Effective Edge training. We don’t have to sit on email, but I feel a bit more pressure than at Hospital A.

      I think you can adjust your work habits in a healthy healthcare setting.

  5. AS says:

    This is a great advice. When I worked in software, I would often get berated by my supervisor for not responding instantaneously to email/gchat. I had the “unprofessional habit” of closing my gmail browser to focus on my software designs. I eventually had to quit that job to accept one with better pay and autonomy. Cal, how would you have dealt with the situation? Is there anything an individual employee can do when management has the expectation of constant connectivity? The biggest irony was that they expected certain deep outputs from me yet constantly distracted me with urgent little tasks and would not grant me the proper autonomy or work environment to actually achieve those outputs they allegedly desired.

    1. CapitolJ says:

      AS,

      If you were working in an environment where instant response is expected to emails, it sounds like the culture is reactive and not proactive. I’d bet that minor issues escalated quickly? People not essential to the problem solving would get looped into the conversation? I think it goes beyond explaining to your manager how you “work.”

      It sounds like you found the best solution to your problem!

    2. Lia says:

      Check out Gary Keller’s book “The One Thing” – he presents compelling evidence that deep outputs and constant interruptions are mutually exclusive, and discusses some innovative ways to reconcile these (along with evidence of their effectiveness). He also highlights how important it is for managers to understand that their creative staff need different boundaries and different working practices from other staff to enable maximum productivity and high-quality output. Excellent book! Would have been a good one to give to your previous manager… ; )

  6. Jacob Smith says:

    37Signals/Basecamp has been experimenting with this for more than six years: https://signalvnoise.com/posts/893-workplace-experiments

    It works, not because it eliminates email, but because in knowledge work people work to fill the time, less time means the less valuable stuff goes away.

    Lots of places that’s going to be emails and meetings, but not everywhere.

    I think the key learning is not email less and be more productive, it’s work less, but expect the same output and be more productive.

    1. Rory says:

      “I think the key learning is not email less and be more productive, it’s work less, but expect the same output and be more productive.”

      ^^^This

    2. Chris says:

      Optimizing email response efficiency and mitigating back and forth messages such as “thanks” “you’re welcome” “have a nice day” “you too” and so on may also help.

    3. Study Hacks says:

      They’re a great example. After they announced their plan, Forbes wrote an article saying that they would fail because forcing 40 hours into four days would stress out their employees. So Fried wrote a response where he said, we’re not forcing 40 hours into four days, we actually want people to do 8 hours less work. He said it had no impact for the same reason Treehouse cited: people cut shallow work but preserved the deep stuff that actually mattered. (I tell this story in more depth in my new book, so I didn’t include it here).

  7. George says:

    This plan works great and it’s simple to implement. Google docs has a share feature that has a setting that let’s all users edit a document. The projects we work on usually have a life span of a couple months. Each one gets a new Google document. Each team member visits each project document at least once each workday. All messages go back and forth on that document. No emails allowed. Vendors who want to work with us have to participate. Everybody knows what’s going on all the time and if anybody needs training, everybody else points them in the right direction. I rarely have to say anything to anybody. They figure it out together.

    Our core hours are Monday through Friday, 9:00AM until 1:00 PM. Everybody must be in the office during those times but beyond that, I don’t care when they get their work done.

    That’s better than having Friday off!

  8. It’s true!

    I find as people get serious about reducing the number of hours they work, they end up getting more important work done than they did previously.

    The reason is that they’re starting to think proactively about what’s the highest investment of their time versus simply reacting or responding to what’s around them.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  9. AC says:

    Cal,

    I know you’re not the biggest fan of Tim Ferriss. I must admit I was suckered in to reading the 4 hour work week. There was one good section though that everyone could start applying in their lives and that was the section on elimination of waste.

    Perhaps the key question boiled down to:

    If for some reason beyond your control you were forced to work no more than two hours per day, what activities would you get rid of?

    Linking to this post, I’m guessing that checking email wouldn’t necessarily be eliminated, but it would be the last thing you did for just 5 minutes at the end of 115 minutes of important, focused, deep work.

  10. Pakeezah says:

    Hey Cal,

    What’s your take on email usage by undergrad/grad students? How should it be limited? I feel that I spend at least 30 minutes each day on it. That is about 3.5 hours each week.

  11. There’s probably a benefit to minimising/eradicating the use of email in businesses/organisation.

    But I must confess, I belong to that plethora of individuals who love their half-hourly ‘hit’ of connective juice.

    Like most knowledge workers, I do have a deep yearning for enhanced productivity. Thus, I may experiment with an email ‘diet’ one of these days…

  12. Definitely like the idea of only working Mon.-Thursday 32 hours a week and no emails. Thats pretty badass. Not sure if every company can implement this type of model…But it sure love the idea to communicate only through forums. Sounds like a chill place to work and people connect well with each other.

  13. Greg Bell says:

    If people don’t send email, they ring phones or stop by, which are both a lot more distracting, harder to turn off, take longer to answer, and suffer from the poorer communication of verbal vs written modes.

    The real problem is over-communicating, not email.

  14. Andrew says:

    Counterpoint: could just be 80/20 principle in effect

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