Dr. Page's Tech Blog


The Inherent Email Assumption Problem; When Only Email is Relied Upon for Vital Tasks

Author: Mark Page-Botelho Posted: 2020-10-12

In just about every workplace I have worked, I or another colleague always tend to run into a problem stemming from an email that was sent and not immediately dealt with. I have always argued that email is effective but not a perfect means of communication. People often scoff at this viewpoint, but there are many assumption being made by those that send emails and wash their hands of due diligence. This causes a workplace where stakeholders do not feel safe or respected.

There was a life before emails and computers. Industries and businesses did thrive before technology and all the innovative tools we have access today.

The key issue with depending on email is based on many factors and assumptions. Foremost, email is dependent on recipient behavior. This is a wildcard that needs to be considered when sending mission critical tasks using only email. No one can predict the behavior of another person. We often expect people to do things our way, but unquestionably people never fit perfectly in the molds we place them in, nor should we expect others to use email like ourselves.

Workflow of individuals cannot be perfectly dictated. Nor should we expect others to do things our way. This would create a world that is stagnant and not efficient as new and better methods would never arise. Expecting other to use email the same ways we do should never be expected as the world is complex, dynamic and random. This is also true with people expecting everyone to have the same prioritization of tasks as ourselves. People often expect their issues to be the most important, while de-prioritizing others needs.

In a flat organization such as a school or organizations where triage is part in parcel of someones job description, prioritization can be an issue. Who gets to determine the prioritization of when emails are read? Also, time can be a contentiousness issue. Is there a policy for after work emails and whether they must be read?

Circumstances can also wreak havoc on organization when only emails are used the primary a method of communication. Life is full of random unexpected or wanted events. Just getting to work or being late, falling sick, death, directing to spam folder, or other high priority tasks can come along at anytime preventing someone from reading or responding to an email. Although workers don't lose time due to interruptions caused by checking email, they do suffer from more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and need for increased effort (Mark, & Klocke, 2008). Job related stress may adversely effect worker retention and overall job satisfaction. Additionally, if the email has nothing to do with a current task, the email interruption will cause an average of 23 minutes in order to get back on task (Mark, & Klocke, 2008).

Everyone writes differently. What if the message is not fully comprehended? Messages are dependent on writing skills and interpretation both of which may not be ideal. There are also issues in relying only on email for communication. Intonation is often a problem that can cause a ripple effect of what may seem to be a inconsequential email. Email is a poor substitute for a face to face or voice messaging. Wording can be tricky, especially if the work-space is multi-cultural. Even when trying to make a joke or infusing sarcasm into an email can cause headaches due to hurt feelings.

One of the by-products of relying on email as the primary or only source of communication is passive aggressive behavior from those receiving emails that may be misconstrued as rude or insensitive. This itself, although unprofessional, in an undeniably natural consequence and will negatively affect organizations as communication may break down further.

What is needed, to open up communication and to ensure that organizations run efficiently, is bi-directional behavioral changes regarding communication. There are many simple behavior changes in addition to things that should be avoided that can help everyone communicate better. The most important of these behaviors is following up on previously sent emails when there is not a timely response. This can include making a voice call using personal or organizational phones. Also, re-sending or drafting a new email can be helpful. One of my personal favorites it to follow up with a face to face conversation whenever possible. When distance or time is a factor using organizational portals or personal chat functions such as Google or Facebook are also popular. Finally, there are more formal methods of communication that can enhance email, such as 3rd party ticketing systems. These include industry standard solutions such as Zen Desk or the use of organizational document management systems such as Google or Microsoft Forms.

In closing, email a powerful tool for communication that has become an integral part of many organizations. Although a relic in the technology time-space, it is still a relied upon technology that appears to be deeply rooted in many organisations. However, due to the many factors out of our control it is unfair to hold individuals accountable when emails fall through the cracks. With slight modifications to our communication behavior, stakeholders in any organizations can using email more efficiently and create a work-space where stakeholders feel safe and respected.


Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008, April). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 107-110). ACM.

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