Taking an e-Holiday

A number of years ago, when the internet and e-mail were still fairly new to most people but quickly catching on, I recall a stand-up comedian on TV telling this joke:

“Imagine e-mail had been around for over 100 years, and it was the telephone that had just been invented. People would be telling their friends, ‘You gotta try this! You can actually talk to the person!'”

I thought about this while reading a story in a recent Business Week about a fledgling movement taking place in some companies led by Scott Dockter, CEO of PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Georgia to limit e-mail use by instituting “no e-mail Fridays.” (Perhaps to coincide with dress-down Fridays? Maybe its easier to converse with people when ones neck isnt bound) Dockter reports his decision to eliminate e-mail just one day a week has resulted in better overall teamwork and problem solving among his 275 employees, and even more importantly, more satisfied customers.

The problem, according to the article, isnt so much “the distraction of spam or stuffed inboxes,” but rather “misinterpreted messages and the degree to which e-mail has become a substitute for the nuanced conversations that are critical in the workplace.” Says Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, “Business has undervalued the social dimension of communication.”

Now dont worry, this isnt going to be an indictment of e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. Believe me, I use it all the time and I love it (after all, I didnt deliver this newsletter in person, did I?). I do believe, though, that organizations which value the power of collaboration in the innovation process would do well to examine the quantity and quality of face-to-face meetings among employees, both formal and informal. This is what MIT did in planning its new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, built very purposefully with a multitude of common areas for people to mingle, chat, argue, swap stories, and share information. And this, in one of Americas absolute bastions of electronic media and communications.

The power of face-to-face meetings is in the impact of non-verbals facial expressions, body language, gestures, even silence. In his landmark study of 35 years ago, Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that approximately 93% of ones message during face-to-face communication is conveyed by non-verbals. Theres no reason to believe that would be different today.

Additionally, theres the spontaneity inherent in face-to-face communication. Admittedly, this can work against you at times, such as when a new idea is immediately shot down in almost knee-jerk fashion. But this is more than made up for in the richness of peoples messages to each other when they are fully engaged in direct conversation. An example is when a project team is participating excitedly in open-minded idea generation, feeding off and building upon each others ideas, all the while “listening” to every nuance of whats being communicated, both verbal and non-verbal.

Its the ultimate form of instant messaging.

Is “no e-mail Friday” for your organization? Well, Scott Dockter admits its been tough to get people to drop old (new?) habits, and I suspect a few e-mails do manage to slip through. But at least on one day a week they are talking more to each other, and to their customers, and have something measurable to show for it.