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To Foster Communication, Bay Area Boss Cut Off Email


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


MARTIN: A few months ago, I showed a couple of friends around our NPR studios and we went down to the main newsroom just minutes before show time. They were shocked. Where was the news-making mayhem, they asked, the din of communication, all the last-minute directions? Why is it so quiet? I said all of that is happening; it's just happening online. Like almost every other kind of workplace these days, most of our communication between our colleagues, even those sitting just a few feet away, is on email. This week on the program, we're exploring how technology affects our relationships, and that includes what happens at work. Shayne Hughes is a CEO from the Bay Area, and he thought his staff had become way too dependent on email to communicate, so he launched an experiment: no internal email for one whole week.

SHAYNE HUGHES: I announced it in a Thursday staff meeting. So, the very next day, I came in and I took care of a few things and I realized I felt this emptiness because there wasn't a slew of things coming at me. And so my first thought was what should I be doing with my time right now? You know, I'm so used to being reactive to these things coming at me. And part of what happened with my team is that something similar - one woman in particular was very upset because she delegates a lot of her work to her assistants through email and she just thought the world was going to end.

MARTIN: It didn't occur to her that she could just walk out and talk with her assistant?

HUGHES: We're habitual. We just get in this very reactive do - react-do, react-do - react mode. And in fact, yeah, we're not very thoughtful. And so something very obvious doesn't occur to us because we're just in survival. And I think she was in survival with all the many things she was trying to do and what she was trying to delegate, and it was a coping system she had developed. It wasn't the best one, but it was what she had been able to create.

MARTIN: Can email sometimes be useful in a work environment because it can be kind of a safe zone?

HUGHES: I think we have a tendency to interpret judgment in people's emails, or, you know, if there's a lack of warmth at the end it means they're angry - or capitals. I mean, there's all these ways in which we try to read into this set of words on the page that if we were in front of the person I think we would see more, how they're saying it or with what tone they say it, or I might be able a question to clarify what they mean. And because I don't have the person in front of me, I often find that we can be a little harsher than we might otherwise be. Now, I do have, in my company, I have a relationship with someone that's a little tense. And at different moments in time, he or I have summarized what our thoughts were about this situation or what was going on or what the conflict was by email and send it to the other person. But it was really a sub-tool that came on the foundation of us being committed to working through this issue, as opposed the first symptom that there was a problem.

MARTIN: Were there people who said to you, you know, this didn't work for me. This was not helpful. I want to go back to the way it was.

HUGHES: I got a lot of that during the week, I can tell you. And part of my challenge was email is this tool that is quite powerful and it's really embedded in how we do work. And I didn't think that we needed to eradicate email all together. I just couldn't tell anymore when it was useful to use it and when it wasn't. And what we did at the end of the week is we talked together about the moments in which email actually would have been a more effective way than talking. And we agreed that that was how we could use email. So, we do have a limited acceptable use of email. But I don't think there's anyone in my company right now that is unhappy with the change we made. I mean, do you know anyone who would like more email?



MARTIN: I do not. I mean, my email box is overwhelmed, and I think that's something that a lot of people feel. So, this week, we're taking a look at intimacy and technology, and the workplace isn't exactly where you would think that you would have intimate relationships, but it's a kind of intimacy when you're working closely with colleagues. How did you look at relationships changing? I mean, did people talk to one another more? Did they have closer, more productive conversations? More honest conversations?

HUGHES: They absolutely did. I'd love just to mention this question about intimacy in the workplace. I actually feel quite strongly about this, that one of our problems in the workplace in general is that there's not enough intimacy, where I'm able to express authentically what's going on for me and feel like it's being heard and received without judgment. And I think a lot of what's missing for the really productive conversations, or the ones about performance or difficult interpersonal issues, are that they're uncomfortable. And by definition then they become intimate, if we have them.

And I think part of why it's easy to go to email is that it's just more comfortable. It's more comfortable to sort of say that thing or not say or say it more harshly than I would but not actually step into the one-on-one and to deal with the disagreement and the different worldviews and perspective on things and to work through that constructive conflict. I mentioned this woman. We still have this policy around our emails. We're human, so we go through waves of more and less stringence(ph). But she's really maintained this new framework she has with her assistant. And...

MARTIN: She liked it.

HUGHES: She liked it. And in fact she's like I never asked by email how her weekend was or vice versa. I mean, they got along fine before, but I think they have a deeper personal relationship. And that's one of those intangibles that's really satisfying for people.

MARTIN: Shayne Hughes is a CEO who decided to eliminate email for his company for an entire week. Shayne, thanks so much for talking with us.

HUGHES: It was my pleasure.

MARTIN: We want to hear how technology has changed your personal and professional relationships. Connect with us on Twitter. We are @nprweelend, and you can find me @rachelnpr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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