On Restrooms and Eye Glasses: An E-Mail Parable

Constant and unnecessary distractions add up, even if they are momentary ones.

A while back, I flew home from a conference and sat next to the chief operating officer of an 800-person company. (Call him Steve here). We started chatting about business communication and he remarked that he receives upwards of 300 e-mails per day. Every day.

I asked Steve if all of the those messages were important and he chuckled. Many of them weren’t—maybe even most, he told me. Intrigued, I asked him for a recent example of a completely superfluous message.

It turns out that a female employee left a pair of glasses in the women’s restroom at his company. She understandably wanted to know if anyone had found them. To that end, she then sent a message to 800 people via the company’s “all employee” e-mail address.

I then asked Steve the following questions:

  • Does his company track employee gender in its HR/payroll system (Answer: Yes.)
  • About what percentage of employees are men? (Answer: More than half.)
  • Are the bathrooms at his organization unisex? (Answer: No.)
  • Do men often sneak into the women’s lavatory? (Answer: No.)
  • Is a male employee likely to find these glasses? (Answer: No.)
  • So why did more than 400 men need to receive this woman’s e-mail? (Answer: Good question.)

I asked Steve if there was at least a separate corporate inbox (or, better yet, a truly collaborative tool) that would let people post and claim lost items. There wasn’t. Steve correctly sensed an opportunity to lighten his e-mail load.

This isn’t 1995. There are other effective communication tools beyond e-mail.

Simon Says

Requests like these are very common and innocuous, but they underscore a number of serious communications issues.

No, unnecessarily diverting the attention of 400 employees for a few seconds certainly isn’t the end of the world. Make no mistake, though, constant distractions such as these add up, even if they are fleeting ones. They contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed. They reinforce the misguided belief that e-mail should always serve as the universal internal communications mechanism for everything.

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