Email is Async

Too many leaders treat email and messaging tools such as Slack or Teams as a synchronous communication channel, increasing their interruptions and destroying their productivity. Read on to understand what drives this behaviour and what you can (and should do) instead.

Email Should Be More Async Than Sync

Many technical leaders and engineering managers struggle to manage their time. If you’re a leader, your calendar is probably full of meetings. Even if you have breaks, you’re probably lucky to have 15-30 minute gaps.

The sad news for all leaders/managers is that there is always more work than time available, so you must consciously manage your time to have the most impact. It’s one of the reasons I built this course to help people. Unfortunately, when you treat email or your messaging chats more like synchronous media, you’re allowing others to control where you spend your time, and you won’t have the impact you want. If you’re working on a deep-focus topic (e.g. technical strategy or team structure), an interruption via email/chat slows down your progress.

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Email/chat should be more async than sync

If you want to be the best leader or manager, remember these tools were designed to be more asynchronous than synchronous communication channels. You should measure a good response time for email or chat in hours or days rather than seconds or minutes.

Perhaps deep down, you know you should think of email and messaging apps as asynchronous channels, but you don’t. Below are a few reasons why.

Why? Cultural Expectations

If you’ve ever worked with a US-centric company, you might be familiar with the “always on” feeling. I know from experience that many US-centric companies expect their employees always to be available. “Always on” culture encourages people to send emails and receive immediate responses because they expect everyone to be online. Smartphones amplified this expectation as no one needs to sit in front of their computer to read email. Smartphones allow everyone to read (and respond) to their emails everywhere and anytime.

Why? Desire to Please Others

What happens if your manager or someone important sends you an email? Do you feel like you want to answer their message quicker than other messages you receive? It’s natural to receive messages from people in authority positions and treat them with more urgency or importance than other messages.

You might feel the inverse if you’re leading or managing a team. You always want to be available and guarantee your team has support, so you feel the need to respond (and take an interruption) as soon as possible to please your team.

People also treat messages as a request for help and want to be as helpful as possible, answering requests for help as quickly as possible. If you’re a people-pleaser, you put pressure on yourself to answer to help others, even if it means sacrificing your own time and focus.

Why? Poor Habits

In the age of social media, gratification through likes and endless notifications, it’s easy to fall into bad habits with default settings on smartphones and computers. Many applications have notifications on by default, letting you know when a new message or email arrives. The notification is typically a popup to draw your attention to the message. The natural reaction is to reply immediately, but it has the downside of interrupting. A continuous stream of emails might make you feel productive but establishes the bad habit of allowing yourself to be interrupted.

What To Do Instead

If you want to improve how you process email and chat messages, try these tips below.

  1. Establish Expectations – When working with a new team or company, I communicate that I check email two or three times a day, and I will respond to most emails by the end of the day, or by worst, the next day if I’m in the office.
  2. Agree on an Escalation Path – Few emails/messages are urgent and important (AKA emergencies). Make sure the people working with you know how to escalate an emergency. For example, I typically share my phone number and ask people to call me in an emergency. An emergency warrants an interruption and immediate response. By giving a phone number, I find most people don’t use it because most topics are not emergencies, and answers can wait for regular response rates.
  3. Signal When You’re Interruptible – From a distance, others cannot tell if you are in deep focus mode or interruptible mode. Agree on a signal indicating when you are interruptible. For example, when I was leading one software team, we agreed I would use a red flag on my monitor to indicate I was in “deep thought” mode. In a remote context, some leaders use their status message to indicate “office hours” when they are interruptible and can respond in a more real-time manner.
  4. Turn Off Notifications – Almost all applications today have notifications turned on by default, leading to constant interruptions and context switching. The only exception for this advice should be your emergency notification channel (e.g. pager app if you’re on-call or production support). Decide when you check your email/messages and not let notifications decide for you.
  5. Block Time in Your Calendar To Respond – If you are going to respond to your emails/chat messages in a timely fashion, you need the time to do so. Reserve time in your calendar in advance. Don’t assume you will have time to do so. If you’re a leader, your calendar quickly fills up with other people’s meetings. I like to ensure I have at least two 30-minute blocks (in the morning/afternoon) to process and respond to emails, but you should adjust this depending on your reading/writing speed.
  6. Use “Send Later” Features (Where Possible) – We have all read emails or chat messages out of hours. But if you’re in a leadership role and send responses immediately, you implicitly signal they should also immediately respond out of hours. Your response unwittingly adds more pressure than necessary. Someone on the receiving end might think, “Oh gosh. My manager just sent me this email on a Saturday evening. It must be urgent and important, so I should respond immediately.” Instead, train yourself to send responses during regular working hours to avoid misunderstandings. Gmail has a Schedule send feature, while Slack has a Schedule a message feature. If your email/messaging app doesn’t have a tool, then another workaround is to save responses as drafts but send them during office hours.
  7. Use Meetings for Real-Time Responses – Some topics, such as an early design brainstorm or discovery workshop, require rapid feedback and real-time responses between two or more people. Don’t be afraid to schedule a meeting. Zero meetings are just as bad as too many meetings, but the negative impact of interruptions and context switching is harder to detect.

Use Communication Channels Well

Great leaders know that effective communication matters, including using communication channels in the most appropriate manner. Responding immediately to every email and chat message might feel gratifying but will limit your leadership effectiveness. Not every message is urgent and important, and these systems were designed to be more asynchronous than real-time.

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