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Should This Meeting Have Been an Email?

In the context of knowledge work there are two primary ways to communicate. The first is synchronous, which requires all parties to be interacting at the same time. This mode includes face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and video conferences.

The second way is asynchronous, which allows senders to deliver their messages, and receivers to read them, when each is ready. This mode includes memos, voicemails, and, most notably in recent years, email.

Which communication style is better? This simple question requires a complicated answer.

The great advantage of asynchrony is its low logistical overhead. If I want to send you information or ask a question I can dash off an email as soon as I think of it, avoiding the endless phone tag or office corridor searches that might have been necessary in a previous era. As I wrote in my 2019 New Yorker article about the history of email, in the early days of office work the idea of practical and fast asynchronous messaging was commonly understood to be a potential “productivity silver bullet.”

The downside of asynchronous communication, paradoxically, is that it can become too easy to use in the moment. As I documented in my most recent book, A World Without Email, the introduction of low-friction digital messaging led workers to move many of their interactions into haphazard threads consisting of unscheduled messages bouncing endlessly back and forth between email inboxes.

This state of affairs required an increasingly large fraction of their workday to be dedicated to monitoring this messaging. (The modern office worker now checks email or chat once every 6 minutes on average). The cognitive overhead generated by all of this context switching is exhausting and makes people miserable.

Turning our attention now to synchrony, the great advantage of this communication style is its transmission efficiency. Real-time conversations are information dense, making it possible to convey large amounts of nuanced details or reach complicated decisions in relatively short amounts of time. A five minute conversation can often accomplish the same as a dozens of back-and-forth messages.

This information efficiency, however, is offset by logistical bloat. While it might be technically possible for us to solve a problem or clearly explain an issue in five minutes of talking, in the modern workplace this interaction will likely be scheduled as a Zoom meeting or conference room gathering that will be allocated, due to the constraints of digital calendars, a minimum of thirty minutes. Few professional experiences are more frustrating than to see your day eaten up by endless appointments rich in mindless small talk and stalling. “This meeting could have been an email!”, has become the exasperated mantra of knowledge workers lamenting their impossibly overloaded calendars.

Highlighting the interlocking pros and cons of these two different communication modes is about more than just improving our understanding of modern work. This specificity can also help identify new strategies that we might have otherwise overlooked.

Looking closer at synchronous interaction, for example, once we’re aware of its advantages and disadvantages, the relevant question now becomes whether it’s possible to leverage the information density of real-time interaction while avoiding the bloat induced by thirty-minute meetings. Stated this way, some obvious solutions emerge.

  • You might, for example, implement office hours. Announce a set period of time each day during which you’ll be available for synchronous conversation: your door is open, phone on, Zoom room activated. When someone tries to initiate a multi-message back-and-forth conversation over email, point them toward your next office hours. They can stop by for exactly the amount of time needed for you to reach a solution. Because the same office hours can be used to handle many different such interactions, the overhead-per-interaction averages out to something minimal.
  • Similarly, if you work on a team, fix several short standing team meetings per week. Maintain a shared document that your team uses between these meetings to record any issues that need to be discussed. When you get to the next standing meeting process through these items one after another. This can save literally hundreds of distracting messages per week at the cost of only a small number of fixed calendar appointments.

Both of these example strategies allow you to harness the power of synchrony while avoiding its worst excesses. The goal is not to transform every meeting into an email, but to reduce the useful-to-fluff ratio of the meetings that do make it onto your calendar.

More important than these two specific solutions — which are just a couple among many similar ideas (see, for example, Amazon’s PowerPoint ban) — is the more general approach taken in this discussion. The impact of technologies on the way we work, live, and relate to each other are often complicated. We have to understand these nuances before we can hope to make meaningful strides toward gaining more control over our tools.


In Other News…

Quick Note: If you pre-ordered my upcoming book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout (Portfolio, March 2024), hold onto your digital receipt. You’ll be able to soon trade it in for some interesting bonuses!

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