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Work Smart

Is There Life After Email? Yes, And It's Amazing

Scott Berkun, author of The Year Without Pants, on his time at Wordpress.com, a company that—pinch us—doesn't rely on email.

I worked at WordPress.com, the 15th most popular website in the world to write The Year Without Pants, a book about what we can learn from the amazing and progressive culture they use to get work done. One major challenge I faced there was learning how to work without email. That's right. While all employees had email accounts and were free to use them, they rarely did. I didn't either: 95% of the email I received while employed there was from people at other companies. How, you may ask, can any modern organization function without email, much less one as successful as WordPress.com? I'll explain everything you need to know.

But first it's important to recognize that despite our constant complaints about endless piles of useless e-mail, most people I tell about WordPress.com's email liberation are dubious. We have a deeply engrained fatalism about alternatives, which is odd given how prideful we are for being early adopters of new ideas. Email is an old technology, older than the Web itself by more than a decade. If email is broken, why do we cling so tightly to our cc: lines and attachments?

The reasons have little to do with technology: All technologies are good for some tasks and bad for others. If a technology annoys you, it probably has more to do with how the people around you use it than the technology itself. Consider this: For all our technological progress, we've yet to invent anything that makes coworkers write clear, jargon-free paragraphs, or that gets them to actually read, and not skim, the well-crafted things we send their way. It's culture that defines these habits, not the tools. Culture bends technology to its will and not the other way around.

Most of the annoying email in the business world is sent for two reasons:

1. Cover your ass.

Email is broadcast to entire divisions simply to ensure no one can say they didn't hear about a decision. Email is a weapon used for pre-emptive political strikes by the sender, attacking everyone on the to list or distribution list. We hate email because we feel like email victims, at the mercy of self-interested people who do not share our goals.

2. Showing off

For people who don't actually make things for their job, email is the only visible, tangible thing they make all day. Dysfunctional, insecure, cultures confuse the meta-work of email and PowerPoint decks for the actual work of helping customers. In these environments, people feel obligated to send much email and create larger and larger documents to give the perception they're working hard. It's a downward spiral of anti-productivity.

These problems are avoided at WordPress.com because most of the 170 employees do actual work, writing code, designing features, or directly helping customers. And they're empowered to be aggressive in their jobs, making live changes to the service dozens of times a day with no approval chain or executive review board. There's little fear of crossing political turf, and no need to show off because their work speaks for itself. The result is the communication channels have a high signal-to-noise ratio.

The single tool used most often instead of email is, surprise, blogs! There's a WordPress theme designed for teamwork called P2, and it's the dominant type of blog at the company. All the specifications and spreadsheets that might be sent over email at your average company are simply posted on blogs for each team or project. Most discussions happen in comment threads, chat rooms or on Skype. If you care about that project, you follow the blog. If you don't, you don't.

Putting WordPress.com aside for the moment, email has fundamental disadvantages that are rarely discussed:

Email empowers the sender. They can put in your inbox whatever they like and as many times as they like (many receivers use filters and rules as countermeasures).

Email is a closed channel. There’s no way to see an e-mail if you are not on the ‘‘to’’ list, forcing work groups to err on the side of carpet bombing entire project teams, or companies. We all feel only a fraction of email has direct relevance to us as individuals. Email tends to bury people in FYI communication, messages unworthy of inboxes.

Email decays over time. If someone writes a great e-mail, an employee has to do something to preserve it. Otherwise it sits in an inbox, hidden from new employees. Over time, that organizational knowledge fades away.

Blogs, and P2s in particular, are designed to invert these assumptions:

The reader, not the sender, chooses what to read. At WordPress.com I picked which project blogs I wanted to follow and ignored the ones that had no value for me.

The reader chooses how often and in what form he or she wants to read. There are many different tools available for reading blog posts, including, if you really want it, email.

Blogs are easy to access, search, and reference. That great list of ideas you wrote a year ago won't get buried and lost in people's inboxes. As a blog post, it will always be available as a URL and can be searched and skimmed just like all the blogs on the Web you read every day.

Of course, there's more to the story. At WordPress.com, there were no schedules. There were few meetings and fewer rules. And the kicker to all of it was every employee worked remotely from anywhere in the world they wanted. How can this work at all you might ask. I had the same question: which is why I bravely dedicated a year to finding answers. To hear those answers, check out my new book The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.

You can even email me about it, if you want.

Scott Berkun is a best-selling author and speaker. Follow him on Twitter at @Berkun.

[Image: Flickr user Christopher Adams]

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