Bring Back My Old Inbox

Lately I’ve found myself reminiscing about how much I miss by inbox. Now, I don’t mean my Outlook inbox or the Gmail inbox on my phone. Actually, they’re the problem. It’s the other inbox. What I really miss is the wire basket that, for the first twenty years of my career, sat on the front-left corner of my desk right above the wire out-basket. What I didn’t realize then was the important role it played in my management development, how it served to bind my employees and I together socially and how it helped to maintain a healthy life-work balance for me. Here’s how it worked.

Several times throughout the day my secretary would stop in my office to deliver fresh mail and pick up items I’d put in an inter-office routing envelope for delivery. Inevitably, I’d ask how her day was going and for a short time we engaged in meaningful conversation about how she was doing. Sometimes the conversation was about her office workload while other times it was about events in her personal life. It may have been a bit of unproductive time for both of us but we engaged in face-to-face conversation. That inbox facilitated communication that strengthened the social fabric of our unit and the company.

By the late 80’s I had a PC and was able to schedule my appointments and write and send my own memos. I didn’t need my secretary and I could get a lot more done in less time. Although I could walk a short distance to my colleague’s office, it was faster and easier to send an email. We were more productive, we thought. We also talked less.

That inbox also enabled one of my first and most memorable management development opportunities. At the time, I was a young technician in a small but important unit in a large company. I had been to management development classes but had few opportunities to manage and to practice what I had learned. That was until my boss went on vacation and I was asked to serve in her capacity for a week. That meant that I had to open the mail in her inbox, read important memos, attend meetings and decide what needed immediate action and what could wait until she returned. I was able to experience her job by managing her inbox for five days. That was a meaningful assignment that I thoroughly enjoyed and have not forgotten. Today, with comingled business and personal emails, 24-hour access and the expectation of others that we’re always available, not only would it be difficult to do, but having someone handle my mail during my absence wouldn’t be needed. A developmental opportunity is missed and a new problem is created.

People today tell me all the time that they’ve lost a healthy balance in their lives. Work has crept into every corner of their waking time. It’s growing harder every day to escape the intrusion of work emails or texts. The line between work “on” and “off” has become blurred. That wasn’t the case with my old wire basket. Issues then were no less important to the future of our company than they are today. However, my inbox didn’t go home with me. The company and our problems could wait until the next day.  When I left the office, work turned off and life turned on. We didn’t have another option. We had clear separation and a healthy balance between the two. Time away from work was a time for rest and recharging.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is a wonderful thing and I don’t want to turn back that clock. But we tell ourselves that we’re more productive because we can work when we want or that we can create a better organization if we can conduct business after we’ve left the office. Rarely is that the case. Rather, it serves as a convenient rationalization for the trap we’ve found ourselves in.

Sometimes we need to slow down to go faster. To perform at our best we need good rest every night. For companies to perform at their best their employees need to rest also. Realizing that clear separation is both healthy for associates and for the business, some companies are taking bold steps to develop policies that limit or prohibit what work can be conducted off hours. They develop leaders who delegate effectively and are not missed when they’re gone.

Call me old fashioned if you’d like. I probably am. But I still think we all lost something of ourselves when we gave up our wire inbox for technology that promised to free us from the burdens of work. Company leaders should ask themselves if their employee’s work habits are in their best interests and that of the company’s. If there are doubts, it’s the leader’s responsibility to protect their employees, even from themselves if necessary. Now, has anyone seen my old rotary dial phone?

If you’d like help bringing balance back to your organization contact me off this site and let’s begin the conversation.

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