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Was digitalization supposed to make employees busier?

Last year, I facilitated a workshop for a big global company. The participants were the leaders from the Japan and Australian offices. In one part of the workshop, they discussed the ideal state of the organization and its current reality. Japanese leaders quickly identified the lack of headcount as a problem they needed to address.

Hearing this, the Australian executive looked surprised. He said, “Well, I disagree. Your headcount in Japan matches the revenue you generate. First, you need to work on increasing efficiency in the office, then ask for an increase in headcount. When I am in the Japan office, I see people very busy typing emails. I guess these are not emails to customers. This means they are just communicating with each other via email even when the person is sitting next to them! This is insane!”

There was a silence from the Japanese leaders. Some acknowledged the truth in the observation, but somehow they seemed reluctant to change their views.

I reminded leaders what the original purpose of emails was. Email was invented in the early 1970s and was primarily designed to enhance communication among researchers and academics who were geographically dispersed. Its initial purpose was to facilitate the efficient exchange of messages over the ARPANET, the precursor to the modern Internet, thus allowing for the seamless sharing of research data, findings, and scholarly materials. The new communication tool was critical in supporting collaborative projects across various universities and research institutes, significantly speeding up the exchange of information and fostering faster advancements in research and development.

But, instead, people use it with ulterior motives, such as subtly exerting pressure, managing perceptions, or creating a paper trail for legal or administrative accountability. Email can be strategically deployed to cc or bcc recipients to either include them in the loop for transparency or to subtly influence decisions and opinions. Additionally, the convenience and formal tone of emails are often leveraged to avoid direct confrontations or to address sensitive issues under the guise of professionalism.

This utilization stems from email's ability to allow individuals to carefully compose their thoughts and articulate responses more effectively than in spontaneous verbal exchanges. The perceived distance provided by email communication can make it easier to manage difficult conversations without the immediate emotional reactions typical of face-to-face or phone communications. Additionally, the ability to craft a message in a controlled environment helps maintain a professional detachment, crucial when dealing with contentious or complex topics.

In Japan, where employees chronically try to avoid being blamed for whatever mistake they make, they try hard to create a trail of all conversations and transactions by email. So, it goes beyond keeping a trail for legal or administrative purposes and is utilized in any transactional conversation. By doing so, they hope they can defend themselves in case a customer or another department complains, or they don't collaborate. The employee may tell their manager, “As you can see in this email trail, I did my best.”

Also, in Japan, where being polite is the norm, people still start emails with phrases that mark the start of a new season when they email customers and send thank you messages. Although it is part of the culture, but how much is really necessary, especially in internal communications?

What can leaders do?

  • Encourage Direct Communication: Promote face-to-face or video conferencing as default communication channels for day-to-day operations to reduce unnecessary email exchanges.

  • Foster a Culture of Psychological Safety: Create an environment where employees feel safe expressing concerns and making mistakes without fear of blame or shame. This can reduce the need for defensive documentation, such as excessive email trails.

  • Train in Effective Communication: Offer training that helps employees distinguish between necessary and unnecessary emails and encourages openness and efficiency in communications. Many people lack basic communication skills, such as assertiveness, "Peaceful Communication," and conflict management. These topics can be starters.

  • Promote Openness: Encourage transparency in operations and decision-making, allowing employees to feel more connected and less inclined to use formal communication for simple tasks.

By focusing on these areas, leaders can better harness the benefits of digital tools to improve efficiency and workplace culture.


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