Why Virtual Meetings may be the Death of Email

Some have been hoping, perhaps praying, for the death of email. Every “solution” has been tried, but none have prevailed.

Some claim email has even “brought them to tears” and that receiving email “is like getting stabbed”.

But despite the many doomed “save the world from email” companies that keep cropping up, there may be a more insidious threat to the 50-year legacy of email: virtual meetings.

Virtual meetings, in combination with a distracted culture dizzied by smartphones, have begun to eat away at the many superpowers of email. How?

It starts with executives. Many are still told that executives want short actionable summaries by email.

But increasingly, we see executives too embattled and too distracted to digest even relatively modest-length emails. They instead insist on a meeting to “get the gist of what you’re trying to say”. 

They will blame the email sender in almost all cases. It was too long (TL;DR is a favorite excuse).

Once the executives have stopped digesting their emails, even those from project leaders, team members, and colleagues, that poor behavior trickles downhill to supervisors, managers, and general staff.

Eventually everyone is running around playing Calendar Tetris on Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. The old saying that “this meeting should have been an email” falls on deaf ears. In fact, in a Kafkaesque manner, it’s precisely because the meeting was originally an email that a meeting must be scheduled.

One could say previously say, “If I didn’t know better, it’s almost as if executives and middle managers desire to look better and fill their day with meetings”. That may have been true decades ago, but now that seems to be precisely the case. There is almost zero ability for most executives to truly understand anything technical in current times, and yet they are tasked with “making decisions” about the very things they don’t understand.

That’s got to be tough; most just want to escape into retirement in the next ten years. They aren’t going to get certified on software tools or technical machinery. Therefore, they avoid digesting emails of technical nature. Technology has now passed them by and almost all technical emails are met with blank stares. When a decision must be made, they certainly can’t empower the technicians make the decisions, else why would they exist? So they hold a meeting and ask, quite literally, the same questions that the original email already detailed the answer to.

Those who awkwardly answer questions in the meeting they previously explained in plain English on the email learn a lesson common to victims of torture: next time, just schedule a meeting in the first place.

Why do email writers feel that way? Because as bad as a meeting would have been, had they asked for it upfront, there’s clear annoyance by the powers-at-be that they were sent the original email. That annoyance, and sometimes outright complaints, is not lost on those who sent the email. 

Email writers come to believe that it would be better to have succumbed to the virtual meeting and play along than to increasingly be the voice of the resistance.

Most know the impending feeling of doom that arises when receiving email invites from lower-level staff about an odd subject line with no prior email thread, and usually little to know explanation in the body of the meeting invite. “Now what?” is usually what I mutter under my breath when I get one. Then, I get the extra fun of showing up at the meeting with no preparation and being asked technical questions because, of course, executives and middle managers think technical people simply know everything off the top of their head.

I used to try and prepare by reaching out to others and asking, “Hey, do you know what this upcoming meeting is about?”. I stopped doing that because that just generates more work and is even more annoying. Because the answer is always something that, had I been asked by the meeting requester, I could have answered in a one paragraph email. But recall the above! The requester is someone who can not, or will not attempt to, understand a one paragraph email, even though it is literally the technical answer to their technical question.

Reading requires a certain ability to think and process, one we’ve lost in our culture. For instance, read the article Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction, published by the Paris Review. That article is about reading in general. One can only imagine how much more difficult it is for distracted minds to read technical material. Perhaps that is what has given rise to the acronym RTFM, but despite the increased usage of RTFM, it isn’t having the impact it seeks. Reading continues to decline.

Could all of the above be the death of email? Could it finally end the reign of email upon our digital wasteland? Must every decision eventually be forced through a funnel of cross-functional teams of employees hashing out technical matters that they have limited skills to perceive and comprehend, all over a 30-minute “quick” meeting (that almost always spins off into more meetings as executives start blame games and ask others to “put a finger on that” so we can “circle back” later. No one wants to reply, “Sounds good. You understand this better than me. We trust you to do what’s best for the company. Carry on!”

How can lovers of email fight back?

Three ways.

1. Keep those emails painfully short. Shorter than you would like. Yes, everyone asks for short emails. But remember, your goal is to make your email recipients look like fools when they ask a question that was above-the-fold and that might have been read by others. On rare occasions, executives and managers will call each other out during a virtual meeting: “Hey Stan, I think Jaime already covered those matters in his email”. When that happens, sit back quietly and smile (if off camera) and score three points for email.

2. Continue the fight! Don’t give in to virtual meeting tyranny. One fun thing to do is to buck out of the unnecessary virtual meeting at that last minute with some emergency. As you send your final Slack reply, be sure to say “I’m so sorry I can’t make it. I know how important it was to everyone. I hope that what I was able to put in the original email will at least cover a few of the topics until we can meet again”. This gets you (and email) three points, but you can double your score if you do this with an important deadline looming and you know for certain that you had it all wrapped up nice and tidy with frosting on top in your original email.

3. When at the unnecessary virtual meeting, read your answers verbatim from your original email. Be sure to read them dispassionately so people pick up on the fact that you are reading. What’s especially great is if someone asks “By the way, are you reading that from somewhere? Can I get a copy of that document?”. Even if no one says that, you can be assured that at least a few people probably did read your email and will see your quiet resistence to the hijacking of your email. You’ll be appreciated, perhaps adored, that you are keeping the hope of asynchronous work alive in these troubled times. Or you’ll be fired if that someone is powerful enough and hates you for it. Either way, you’ll have your dignity, and you’ll have preserved the dignity of email. And that is worth ten points easy.

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