“Don’t you celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK?”, I’m often asked by my American colleagues. My standard, rather facetious, reply is “no, the British are so polite, we say thank you every day, not just once a year” (if only this were true – the stereotype of Britain as a haven of courteous behaviour is, sadly, years out of date). So while the US is busy over-eating this week, most of the rest of the world is still hard at work, and still filling your inbox with emails for you to respond to when you get back. By Monday morning, Twitter will be full of pictures of huge unread message counts with #emailoverload tags attached.
But does it have to be like this? What if every email you were sent while you were away was automatically deleted, so you come back to work with an an empty inbox (or, more likely, no fuller than it was when you left)? In August, BBC News featured an article about Joana Breidenbach who does precisely that. For the third year running, she took an email sabbatical and her out-of-office auto reply said:
“Many thanks for your mail. Unfortunately I won’t be able to read it, as I am taking my annual email sabbatical. From August 1-29 all my emails will be automatically deleted. See you in September, Yours Joana.”
Most people I shared the article with were universally dismissive of such a policy – many considered it an extremely rude thing to do. But is it? Haven’t we just become conditioned to thinking that it’s perfectly normal to promise replies on our return? Isn’t it in fact worse to promise a reply, when they likelihood is that you won’t go through every single message on your return? Would it not be better to construct an auto reply that helps the email sender avoid the need to wait for your return, directing them to the best way of resolving whatever it was they emailed you about.
The answers to all of these questions, of course, depend on the nature of your job. In most customer-facing roles, you need to have a continuity plan in place to avoid keeping a customer waiting while you are away, so it would probably be better to automatically forward the incoming message to someone else and delete or archive your copy. Internal email may be more likely to be targeted specifically to you, for for these messages a forward-and-delete policy would be less appropriate.
Most email servers do have the ability to set up rules to implement more sophisticated re-routing of email, but hardly anyone ever uses them. So the huge backlog of messages when we get back to work is, to a certain extent, a self-imposed problem. But it’s one that is perpetuated because it has become accepted as the norm.
If we want to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of business communication, we need to challenge these accepted practices and reconsider whether they really make sense. It may be that it is totally inappropriate for some people to implement a “your message has been deleted” policy. But for others it might actually lead to better customer satisfaction and business efficiency – that’s something we’d all give thanks for.