In early 2016, I published an article with a purposefully provocative title, ‘A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.’ Though I’d been writing about the unique miseries of this technology on my blog, this piece was one of my first mainstream essays on the ideas that would eventually coalesce into my book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. At the halfway point of the article, after I’d reviewed the issues caused by the hyperactive hive mind workflow, I delivered my big conclusion: “There’s great advantage for those organizations willing to end the reign of the unstructured workflow and replace it with something designed from scratch with the specific goal of maximizing value production and employee satisfaction.”
In my original draft, I was happy to leave the argument there. My editor didn’t agree. He rightly pointed out that the idea of abandoning email was so novel that there had to be at least some suggestions about how an organization might function in its absence. I hadn’t yet worked out the details of attention capital theory at this early point in my thinking, so I didn’t have a ready answer to my editor’s question of what replaces email. Grasping for an example, I found inspiration in an activity common in my own world of academia: office hours. As I elaborated: The concept is simple. Employees no longer have personalized email addresses. Instead, each individual posts a schedule of two or three stretches of time during the day when he or she will be available for communication. During these office hours, the individual guarantees to be reachable in person, by phone, and by instant messenger technologies like Slack. Outside of someone’s stated office hours, however, you cannot command their attention. If you need them, you have to keep track of what you need until they’re next available.