An Email isn’t Real Until You See It
By Conor Nicholson, President and CEO of NSS RPO
“We are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us.” -John Kenneth Galbraith
How crazy does that concept sound? You’re thinking, “Of course an email is real! The very second an email appears in an inbox, it exists. It even has a timestamp!” I would offer a different perspective. Until a human has laid eyes on an email, the recipient isn’t aware of its content. The information in the email hasn’t been digested and added to the knowledge base of the reader. At this point, the message is in transit.
E-mail is short for electronic mail and that’s exactly what it is; mail. While the use of traditional mail has declined dramatically, people still physically mail cards and letters. In my house, my 5 year old daughter Claire seems to receive a lot more mail than me. Almost every week, she gets invitations to birthday parties. All I seem to get are bills and credit card offers. But the point remains the same. Until we physically handle, open and read a birthday invite or thank you card, we have no idea of its existence. If mail arrives on a Monday and we’re out of town, we’ll review it upon our return.
You’re probably asking yourself “We live in the 21st century. Why is this guy talking about the US Postal Service?” I want to hammer down a point. We were put on this earth to live fulfilling, enriching lives. To help others. To experience all the wonders of life. To live in the moment. I have personally witnessed (and experienced) a trend where people are becoming more and more mentally detached from real life because they’ve become obsessed with checking their work email, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Life is not lived on a computer screen or smart phone. It is lived by spending time with friends, family and loved ones. Living is eating a good meal, being physically active, traveling, spending time outdoors and about a thousand other things not involving computers.
Is this a rally cry against email? Of course not. Unless you live in the woods and use a crossbow to find dinner, email is an integral part of your daily life. I’m a recruiter and spend the vast majority of my workday emailing managers and candidates. I couldn’t live without it. What I’m saying is there is a time and place for checking email. That time is not when you’re having dinner with your family, hanging out with friends or attending a concert or sporting event. When you do that, you’re not living in the moment. You’re allowing your work life to creep ever so slightly into your personal life. Friends, it’s a slippery slope.
The so called work-life balance was fundamentally changed with the introduction of smart phones. In the old days, if you wanted to check email, you had to either be in the office or logged into a web portal from your home computer. These days, email is in your pocket, practically begging to be checked. Trust me, I feel the urge just as badly as you do.
As a 37 year old, I have fond memories of the way the world used to be. When I got home from work, I’d crack open a beer, throw on a CD and read the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Some nights I went to the gym and other nights, I might hit golf balls. Rarely, if ever, did I surf the web. I did everything with a clear conscience because smartphones didn’t exist at the time. If I was meeting up with friends at a bar or for dinner, there was no way for me to check email or my Facebook feed. The people I spent time with had my full, undivided attention. It seems this concept is a thing of the past for the majority of working professionals these days. Too often, I see two people speaking and one person seems to be more concerned the screen on his/her smartphone than what the other person is saying.
We always talk about what we have gained by using technology. Rarely, if ever, do we talk about what we’ve lost.
If you have met me in real life, you’ve probably heard my theory on smartphones, which is that they are 51% blessing and 49% curse. They’re a blessing because you can access pretty much any type of information at any time. They’re a curse because they make you accessible to everyone you’ve ever known, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes I think about our parent’s generation. My father was an architect and when he got home from work, he was done. He didn’t think about work and work didn’t think about him. Sure, he might have some late nights in the office when a building design was due but as all of the blueprints and models were there, he couldn’t really do much from home. Now he’s semi-retired and can do pretty much anything from his home PC. That is the case for the majority of professions, including my own. All a recruiter needs is a cell phone, an internet connection and a laptop. That’s it. I spent 8 months living in Hawaii and my only tools were my cell, laptop and Franklin Covey planner.
What I’m proposing is easier said than done but it is possible. You can’t change the actions of others but you can certainly control your own. I worked as a Technical Recruiter for a large government contractor for 5 years and received emails all the time, day and night. Early on, I made the decision not to check or respond to emails after 6PM. Why 6PM? Because that was my time. I’m a recruiter, not an ER Surgeon. In my line of work, responding to an email within 30 minutes is not a matter of life and death, but I seriously think some people view it that way. I also chose not to read emails after 6PM because I didn’t want to create the precedent that I was accessible 24 hours a day. That email that your demanding hiring manager sent at 10:30PM? It can wait until the morning. I’m not sure what your offer letter or job description looked like but mine made no mention of 70 hour workweeks and being accessible over the weekends and while on vacation. When I went on my honeymoon, I told my co-workers that I would be completely unreachable. Do you know how many catastrophes I walked into upon my return? Not a single one. Two of my employees at NSS went on honeymoons and I demanded that they never check their work email. We’ll survive. The work will be there when you get back.
One of the most ironic things about email is that we beat ourselves up for not responding fast enough but give all the leeway in the world to the folks we contact. If the issue isn’t pressing, we have no problem if the recipient gets back to us 12 or even 24 hours later. Why? Because we know they have their own professional and personal lives. Maybe they were attending an all-day meeting. Maybe one of their kids were sick. Why don’t we give ourselves the same leeway we give to everyone else. Also, do you really think that every person who sends an email at 10PM expects a response that night? I bet the majority don’t and if they do, they need to have their heads checked. Most of the time, the sender had a busy day and they know they won’t hear back from you until the next day, and that is completely fine. I’ve been a recruiter for 15 years and do you know how many after hours emails absolutely had to be answered by 2AM? Not a single one. If someone put in their notice via email at 11:45PM, the situation is no different at 8:15AM the next day. If there is an issue, I’ll address it at that time. The other week, I was watching the last episode of Mad Men and felt the urge to quickly check email on my phone. I stopped myself and in my head thought “What if there is bad news? Why would you potentially ruin your night? If there is bad news, the bad news will be there in the morning.”
Am I saying that you should never, ever check email outside of normal business hours? Absolutely not. I started my company from our spare bedroom and over the past 5 years, we’ve placed recruiters in 25 states and made the Washington Business Journal’s Top 25 Staffing Agency List. I spent many, many late nights sourcing recruiter resumes, writing proposals and handling our operations. But from the very beginning, I made the commitment to never let the business overtake my life to the detriment of my family. I’ve read about way too many successful businessmen that neglected their families and I promised my wife and daughter that I wouldn’t become a statistic.
I reached out to my old boss and current mentor, Charlie Eye, to get his take on the subject. Charlie founded ESC which at its peak, was the biggest RPO firm in the country. He worked hard, built an incredible team and still had time for fun and family. The guy knows how to get stuff done. He told me “Obviously Recruiting is not an 8-5 job but to be available 24/7 is not practical or sustainable. Instead I would focus on being available on ‘off hours’ where I knew I could see some great activity. For example, 6-9PM on Sundays always yielded great results for me. My family soon became used to the routine that Dad was not avail be during these times. It was far more effective than fielding calls or emails at 11:00 pm on a Tuesday.”
I also reached out to another mentor, Lee Carrick, the former President of Perot Systems Government Services. Lee has run multi-billion dollar organizations and I shiver when I think about the email traffic he must see. He said “Reading every email throughout the day is like trying to have simultaneous verbal discussions with numerous people. An ineffective way to communicate and accomplish necessary business tasks. Avoid checking emails every time your phone dings with a new message by turning off that audible cue as it only encourages checking emails constantly.”
The last mentor I reached out to was Mark Simons, the founder of The Goal, an extremely successful IT Consulting firm that has been named one of the best places to work in the DC area three years running. Mark has an incredible business sense and his take was so epic that I decided to use every word.
“At the height of my addiction (rock bottom) I was looking at my phone once every few minutes every waking moment. It was the last thing I looked at before falling asleep and the first thing I looked at in the morning.
It was getting to me and effecting my schedule along my blood pressure and stress level. It was getting in the way of my family, my safety and my relationships. It was exhausting and from the looks of it, I was not alone.
New Year’s 2015 – Breakthrough. My decision was made. Stop checking email outside of work. I moved my mailbox to the last page of my phone and shut off all types of alerts. Everything would have to wait until morning. At first it was difficult but I started feeling better after only a couple weeks. I told myself that if I relapsed, I would need to delete mail from my phone. The results were tremendous. I paid more attention to my driving and my family. I responded to emails in a more thoughtful and professional manner and the catching up that I thought would have taken me an hour every morning only takes 15 or 20 minutes. I leave work at work and couldn’t feel better about it. Once I leave work I disconnect. I drive to the office with anticipation and excitement about what has happened since I left. If people need me they know to text me and looking back I can’t be happier about the results. Sorry Apple, no watch for me as I am thrilled with leaving my email at work.”
As with everything else in life, there is no one size fits all method when it comes to checking email and the work-life balance. If you’re racing towards a deadline or waiting on some big news, you might want to keep the cell handy. Otherwise, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride we call life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic so feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be forewarned, if you reach out to me in the evening or over the weekend, don’t expect an immediate response. Your email will be there in the morning.