The Fine Line

Achievers tend to sleep little and work long hours. They also tend to take little vacation time. This is a trend. Ambitious professionals basically work all the time. 
The people I admire work a lot. They may work officially around 70 hours a week and, when they are not working, they never fully disconnect. We have the “do it your way” articles and books, the “put your feelings first” movement, or even the “don’t regret on your death bed that you did not spend enough time with the ones you love”. All that. We all know all that. And still, we tend to doubt that there is any other way than working long and hard.

The cell was great in the beginning. You can reach people anytime, no need to stay in the office, it was a way to contact someone in case of an emergency and, even when we realized the drawbacks of the 24/7 office, voice communication kept on being good because it was a great anti-bullshit tool. You asked a direct question and the person on the other end of the line had to answer. Clean, fast, no time to build excuses. Plus you have your magic lie detector always on.
Then the technology world developed the conference call for everybody and everything. The perfect tool for propagating nonsense and developing a generic way of talking without saying anything at all. In a way, it is also a way for the English-speaking world to keep their power. You can pretend you speak English in an email. But you certainly cannot do it on a conference call. The bad quality of the sound. The delay. Everybody talking on top of everybody. Lots of sorrys and go-ons. Only good old English, please.
The second phenomenon was that, in the beginning, people were shy about bothering you on the phone. I remember I was taught to always ask, whenever I would call somebody, “Can you talk now?” to find out whether I had to be brief or super-brief. But of course, this is part of the past. Nobody asks you that anymore. People talk your ear off, people call you during lunch, people call you at midnight and people have forgotten any notion of respect. I have no problem talking on the phone, especially for business and for attracting new customers, nothing like a good, relaxed, I-am-not-in-a-rush and you-are-the-most-important-person-in-my-world session of phone chat. But it is not only with clients. The cell phone has democratized the power to disturb. Now, everybody can do it. So you find yourself answering questions, requests or demands from an enormous amount of people and having to give explanations, to justify, to listen and to try to make them understand. Everybody wants their ideas to be paid attention to – on the phone. For a while I decided I did not want to work with intelligent people because they always want to know the why of things. Then I realized that the most intelligent ones are, in fact, those who know when to ask. Which brings us to the conclusion that the cell phone, as any other human tool, is great for a minority and a great danger for the majority.
I put a lot of faith in email. I have always relied on email a lot so I wouldn’t waste people’s time. I would be clear, I would be brief and, in return, everybody would treat me the same way. Boy, was I wrong.


The most obvious observation: email has increased our working hours a lot. The producer of any good ol’ movie you can imagine was most certainly not working at 23:00 any given Tuesday. The much tinier fish, advertising producers working on enormously less relevant projects for example, feel the pressure to answer anytime, anywhere and as fast as possible. And their clients and their bosses expect the same. It is a high price to pay. The possibility of being permanently interrupted. And when a phone call would be too invasive, why not an email?

The other day a colleague told me that you will recognize rusty corporate business  when you see subject lines with lots of Re:’s, tones of people in the carbon copy line and really few decisions being made in the body of the text. This is clearly part of the problem. Email, especially in certain industries, although I can only talk about mine: advertising, is a tool that promotes ill practices and impoverishes productivity. Too many people get emails they don’t want to read and too few people with the answers actually say something because they don’t want to disturb, offend or take a risk in front of the other members of the CC line. Long emails that people don’t bother to read or that, once read, mean nothing to them, attachments that are just forwarded without anyone really understanding them, the permanent difficulty of doing anything without the noise of a new message in your inbox. It brings us to a level where people forget sometimes why they are there. Their job is not to answer emails. Their job is not to send emails. Their job is to make sure the thing their working on is actually going to work out. 
Email has also turned out to be a tool to protect yourself. When presented with a problem or a mistake, if it has been written down, even though nobody really understands what the text means or the consequence of what is said, there is the possibility of blaming someone else.
Another weird effect email can have is that people are actually starting to lose any patience they had to begin with. People don’t get into problems. People don’t think twice. People don’t wait when they get bad news. People don’t memorize. People don’t even seem to take notes anymore. I guess the best ones do but normal folk get so anxious, so nervous about the speed at which things are happening that they are losing all their other human abilities to deal with business. 
I love technology. I even think one of the reasons why businesses sometimes don’t work better is because we don’t fully take advantage of all the upgrades and all the tools technology can provide, not just stupid emailing and the ever-ringing cell. But I can’t stop thinking about how a guy like Buffet made his whole fortune thinking a lot, reading the paper and watching an old tube TV. And yes, I am jealous.


Note: Thanks to Julia for the editing.


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