When I bought my first iPhone in 2010, I was excited. Sure, I loved (and still do) new, shiny gadgets, but it was more than that. It was a promise: this little device would do whatever I imagined; I wouldn’t need anything else to work, create, and communicate. Smartphones were not new then, but this promise was still mostly a promise. There were apps for just about anything, but between the connection speed, the battery life, and the tiny screen, I found it hard to do most of my work on my iPhone. With time (and competition), smartphones became faster, the screen became larger, and apps became more appealing and useable; sometimes, they were even more useful than their desktop equivalents. And so, like many others, I started to use my smartphone more and for more things; among these were reading, responding to, and writing work emails.
With the rise of smartphone usage and the fall of the last barriers of connectivity and usability, everyone seemed to be online all the time, and the appetite of the people on the other side of the line grew bigger. If we can read, write, and respond to email from anywhere and at any time, we should definitely do that. Or so we were led to believe. We were expected to be ultra-responsive, and we expected others to be as responsive as we were. Soon, reading and writing emails on your mobile device became the norm. It became the default, the baseline. Anything less than that was considered unprofessional. Unfortunately, it still is.
I still love gadgets, and yes, I still have a smartphone. It is almost always with me, and I do plenty of things with it. For some things, it is irreplaceable. However, I try to avoid my mobile device as much as possible when it comes to non-personal emails.
The Problem with Mobile Email
Doing email on mobile is bad for us, but it doesn’t benefit our work either.
The obvious problem with attending to work emails on your mobile is that you are always at work. Literally, always. We are distracted enough by our “leisure” apps, but when we get that “ping” from our manager or a colleague at work, it comes with a sense of urgency and importance. We might be able to fight the social notifications (or turn them off), but when it comes to our work, we are expected (or expect ourselves) to respond as soon as possible. It is more than a distraction — it is our duty. Or so we believe.
Now, I won’t lie: If you are expected to be responsive 24/7, that’s a problem. Nobody should be connected to their work email when they are off hours, even if the reason is “only” to lead a good life and attend to things that are no less important (and probably more important) than yet another email. But if that’s not a good enough reason (though it is, really), there is another reason to avoid attending to work emails on your mobile device: emailing on mobile is just a poor way to communicate. You are not only doing work on your personal time — you are not doing your best work.
There are two types of email in your inbox. The first is the emails that shouldn’t have been sent in the first place (or at least not sent to you). Emails, like any other communication, must be meaningful — they must have some purpose, but these emails are nothing but noise; once you read them, you know you shouldn’t have bothered. If most of your emails fall into this category, you must deal with it. How to do that and, hopefully, reduce their number over time is not a simple question, and I will dedicate one of the upcoming editions to some ideas. But one thing is sure: If these emails are nothing more than a waste of time, the last thing you’d want to do is waste this time when you are off work. It’s unfortunate enough to attend to important issues when you are off work, but leaving whatever you do to read an email you wish you hadn’t is more than frustrating.
The second type of email is more challenging: these are the emails that really do require your attention and, most likely, your response. These emails are meaningful and carry essential information or call for your insights or decisions. Sometimes both. This is why we are expected to be responsive in the first place, so it is no surprise that we feel the urge to attend to these emails as soon as they arrive, no matter where we are or what we are doing. When we do so, we typically think about meeting the urgency requirement, but we often neglect an even more crucial aspect: the quality of communication.
A while back, I was involved in a project that experienced quite a few problems. Almost every milestone was missed, plans were constantly changing, and as far as I could tell, the same core issues kept showing up, causing these problems. It seemed chaotic, but it was a predictable chaos. So, I took the time to compile some data, analyze the issues, and suggest some operative things I believed could help the project. I summarized it all in an email and sent it to the manager accountable for the project. I didn’t have to wait more than an hour until a reply appeared in my inbox. I will risk quoting the complete response:
In some sense, no response would have been better. This manager’s response didn’t give me anything to work with. Was I wrong? Was I right on the spot? Were we going to take on my ideas or just leave things as they are? I had no clue. He was an intelligent and opinionated person. We didn’t always agree, but this was something else. I wasn’t sure what his opinion was, and frankly, I was pretty sure he didn’t have any opinion. His response seemed like an afterthought — a reply written while doing something else. I felt like my work was in vain. I can’t say for sure, but if I have to guess, I’d say the response I got had been sent from mobile.
Our mobile devices are great for many things. Deep reading and good writing are not two of them. When using our mobile devices, we almost always do or should be doing something else in parallel. Whether waiting in line, sitting in the park, commuting, or watching TV in the background, one thing is sure: we are not 100% immersed in reading what’s on the screen. We are repeatedly interrupted by notifications on our devices or (God forbid) actual things in the external world. Even if we manage to read 200 words straight, processing them, letting them sink in, and thinking about an in-depth response is out of the question. Writing a detailed response on the miniature on-screen keyboard is rarely an option. More often than not, the result is a reply that looks and feels like it took a few seconds to think of and write. In many cases, that’s exactly what it is. Sounds familiar? Email on mobile feels like social media: like, share, brief comment, and scroll to the next item.
When reading and writing emails on mobile, the focus is often on responding quickly rather than thinking, contemplating, and crafting a coherent response. Communication is often an act of translation, and we often fail to communicate effectively because we believe the other side knows what we know and thinks as we do. Communicating “on the fly” while doing something else makes this practically the default. Coming up with a well-thought-out response and phrasing it so it makes sense to the people on the other side requires attention; it requires bandwidth. It deserves your bandwidth.
The challenges you face at work are rarely straightforward; they are nuanced and include many details, sometimes contradicting one another. When you skim through your messages on the small screen and are constantly distracted, there is little chance to notice and consider these nuances. Every idea, statement, and data becomes shallower when they occupy your screen for no more than a couple of seconds before you continue to scroll. Communication done on mobile is a poor substitute for the real thing.
True, thanks to our mobile devices, we can be more responsive. We will pay some attention to pings from work faster. It is faster but much less effective. The more focus we place on hitting the KPI on responsiveness (which has its toll on our health and well-being), the less we can ensure our communication helps us do our work. We might be communicating more, but we achieve less.
Bigger Screen* — Better Communication
* Don’t buy a phone with a bigger screen. That won’t do the trick.
Reading on a bigger, non—mobile screen is an entirely different experience. A bigger screen you do not carry with you wherever you go allows you to get immersed in the content you are reading. Hopefully, it has fewer distractions built into it (most people have fewer notifications on their laptop or desktop computer than on their smartphones). But more importantly, you have fewer distractions from your surroundings. When you sit at your desk and read from the big screen, you do so with more intention and the ability to absorb and process what you read.
Scrolling is no longer the default action on the big screen. Plenty of text is visible on the screen, and it is static for quite some time. You don’t have to chase it with your eyes before it disappears beyond the borders of your mobile screen. If the email you are reading contains charts or tables with data, they are easier to follow and make sense of on a big screen where you can see the complete picture while still being able to zoom into the details. Links and references to other resources are easier to navigate and read side by side with the email.
All in all, you get a better view of the text and can give it more attention and thought. You get a chance to respect the text that someone — one of your colleagues — took the time to write so both of you could do a better job for the organization.
Writing on a big screen with a full-sized keyboard is also a profoundly different experience than writing using the on-screen miniature keyboard. No matter how proficient you are in thumb-typing, writing using a smartphone calls for brevity. While this sounds like something to strive for, when it comes at the expense of articulating your thoughts coherently and completely, brevity turns communication into a frustrating experience. The big screen and the comfortable keyboard allow you to write more as well as evaluate what you write. They are inviting you to write complete sentences and meaningful paragraphs. This is not a waste of words but rather the best way to express your ideas, questions, and insights. It is how human language is designed, and replacing it with shorthand cryptic text has a severe toll.
When you need to include data or visuals in your email, the big screen, the mouse, and the physical keyboard will always prevail. No matter how capable your mobile apps are, they are inferior to the editing experience on your laptop or desktop computer, if only because you have more screen real estate to work on. An email written when sitting comfortably in front of a big screen and a physical keyboard tends to be richer.
None of that is to say that you cannot write poor emails on your laptop. Much of the social media mindset has infiltrated other domains even when they are not fully mobile. Writing well and thinking through whatever it is you have to say is something you need to invest in, and unfortunately for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally these days. But the tools you use have a crucial impact on your ability to do so. What is possible (even if not trivial) on the big screen is almost impossible when you write an email while stuck in traffic.
Mobile devices are great. They have changed our lives, and not entirely for the worst. Acknowledging their limitations is crucial if we wish to make good use of them. Sometimes, we don’t have a choice, but more often than not, we do. When it comes to doing email on your smartphone, I believe in most cases, waiting until you are in front of a real workstation (or even for formal working hours) will yield better communication and better outcomes nine out of ten times.