One of the many differences between people on either side of the Millennial divide is their approach to email. Those of us who began to work before the dubious blessing of email tend to aspire to ‘zero email’ – the happy utopia of an empty inbox. We work diligently through our mails, and increasingly become caught in a spiral of catch-up because the flow of emails never stops. Nevertheless, we drive ourselves to respond and file incessantly, with Calvinist zeal.
Back in January 2017, French workers actually won the legal right to ignore email and SMS messages after working hours. Quite what that has done to the productivity of a nation that espouses a 35-hour working week, I couldn’t say.
Younger people in work are now displaying an alternative behaviour. They understand that a clean inbox is an unrealistic goal, so they are practising ‘email infinity’. This means accepting that the number of mails in your inbox will always be infinite because your time to deal with them is finite. So you ignore most of them. In fact, at the extreme end of this behaviour, employees are using out-of-office settings to deflect the deluge. They have a point – how can you answer 500 emails when there are only 480 minutes in the average working day?
But here’s the rub: reducing your email engagement may do you some good as an individual, but it creates a much bigger problem in the medium term. Think about the three constituencies most workers influence – customers, colleagues and suppliers. Just how does deliberate non-communication make them feel?Christine Porath, a US business researcher, has just published her results on the effects of incivility in the workplace. She defines the term as rudeness or disrespect and outlines a range of behaviours from ignoring to belittling to harassing. Not surprisingly, the findings show that incivility erodes productivity. 66% of people who are offended by colleagues cut back their work effort. The more sensitive souls lose time worrying about it, and 12% of employees leave their jobs because of it.
Every single one of us knows what it feels like to be a customer who is ignored or frustrated by poor communication. Many of us are also suppliers, who quickly come to scorn our uncivil customers. Scorn leads to lower effort and higher charges – so the uncivil procurer of services loses out. What goes around, comes around – so the saying goes.
Porath says too many people misperceive incivility as strength: believing that ‘nice guys never win’. But civil people are often seen as more powerful and respected, and always make better leaders.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa