Then and now: How did we work before email?

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By Sonia Acosta

Hey you. Yes, you writing the email to your co-worker in a cubicle two feet away from you.

Ever feel like no one talks to each other anymore? We are all guilty. Email is easier, it’s quicker, it helps us keep a paper trail, and well, it’s just what we’re used to in the modern workplace.  Ever wonder what a regular workday was like before the advent of email? How did people manage, and what are the dangers of over-relying on this tool we often feel like we can’t live without?

Here are three professionals’ then-and-now email stories to help you appreciate the technology while also being cautious of it.

Productivity gains vs. efficiency losses

Bill Du Val, a lawyer at Slinde Nelson & Du Val Business Law in Portland, Ore., recalls a time when people actually picked up the phone, and, as a common courtesy, usually called a colleague or client’s assistant first.

“As a lawyer of 19 years, I can state without reservation that I am incapable of handling over seven dozen emails every single day,” says Du Val. “An associate can screen some emails for me, but the ultimate filter, unfortunately, still has to be me. In this regard email lessens my productivity.”

Email is characteristic of today’s get it done yesterday, go faster than fast, you’re never quite going fast enough pace. While it might encourage this lifestyle and work pace that is often nearly impossible to keep up with, it also helps us be more efficient.

“The difference between the 1990s and today is that things move more quickly, the primary advantage being the ability to attach documents,” says Du Val. “Here today, there today. Fax machines suck, have always sucked, and will always suck. But I see the Federal Express driver a whole lot less these days.”

What’s gained, what’s lost?

Dianna Booher, author of “E-writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication” and CEO of Booher Consultants in Colleyville, Texas, explains the productivity gains and losses seen from the introduction of email.

Then, in our prior email-less world (gasp!), “Mornings consisted of riffling through your inbox of hand-scribbled notes from your colleagues and phone messages from callers interpreted by an assistant.” Can you imagine it?

“You responded by scribbling the responses and dropping them off in everyone else’s inbox,” Booher recalls. “You wrote lengthy letters to clients, dropped them in the U.S. mail, and waited 7-10 days for a response.”

All letters were official, on letterhead, so everything was written formally.  “No mistakes. No sentence fragments.” At this pace, the quick decisions we are accustomed to today were more than hard to come by, she says.

Modern workers, especially those who have never lived in an email-less workplace, could not imagine functioning like this. Still, just as email has solved a lot of our problems, it has undoubtedly created some as well.

“Messages from clients and colleagues come by email, but they are sent and opened around the clock. You are on 24/7,” says Booher. “You write to clients as quickly, briefly, and often as informally as you do colleagues.”

Our emails are often too informal.  Messages can become unclear, and decisions can be made too hastily. When email is over-used to replace face-to-face or even phone communication, “People feel anonymous, and grow hostile and rude,” cautions Booher. “People feel isolated and disconnected, and some cannot put their personality on a page. They lose that big plus of personal presence-so much a dynamic in persuasiveness.”

A life more complicated?

Lindy DeKoven, a television executive who began her career as a secretary in the technical services department at CBS Television City 20 years ago, recalls her first encounter with email.

“I actually remember quite vividly being on the phone with an agent at the William Morris Agency,” she says. “They had just gotten email. I had asked this agent a question. Because he didn’t know the answer, he emailed his associate the question. Within seconds, he had a response. I had no idea what email was, or what he was talking about. All I knew was that I wanted it.”

DeKoven also recalls when business was conducted over the phone and in person, when the word processor was considered an amazing tool of efficiency compared to the typewriter.

“At lunch or at the end of the day, we actually got in our cars and relaxed,” she recalls with nostalgia. “There wasn’t the constant interruption of emails, texts, and phone calls. We were able to breathe. To think. To relax.” Once she became an executive, email became a big, unavoidable part of life. “Then there was BlackBerrys and texting, and life had changed for good.”

Use it, don’t abuse it

So what are we getting at? It’s simple. While email can be a great time-saver and efficiency creator, it can also distance you from colleagues and clients. Now we are not suggesting you stop using email. Why, the world might very literally stop if you did that. Just get up and walk over to a co-worker once in a while, pick up the phone instead of sending that one-liner, and get to know people. We know, it’s quite a concept to grasp, but it can and will help you build better relationships at work, so give it a shot, won’t ya?

  1. Remember “Inter-Office Mail”? I would draft a ‘memo’, have my assistant type it up, sign it and keep a copy, stick it in an InterOffice Mail envelope and address the envelope in the next available open entry to the person and their mail location and wait 3 – 5 days for a response. Don’t have to do that anymore!

    However, when I really need some quick info, I do still pick up the phone and call to talk to someone and this seems to be really appreciated these days.


  2. Email is a time suck. It is amazing that we survived the last 10 million years without it.

    What I hate is when someone emails me and then calls me to tell me that he sent me an email.

    I am just waiting for him to send me a fax, telling me that he just called me to tell me that he sent an email. Just stop already!

  3. LOL Sensible Shoes:
    I work with a guy who does just that kind of thing. I think I finally got him to stop after I told him that if he called me about his email, I was going to delete his email without even opening it. I gave him a choice of either calling me or emailing, but not both.

    It got really annoying after a while.

  4. Email has not made us more productive, it has only increased churn which is the illusion of being productive. I am a professional business writer. Prior to email, I would establish rules with a client for a writing project that stated two reviews and an approval cycle. It worked quite well. Each cycle took a bit longer without email but the work got done and got done well. Now, I have clients that email changes to me every 13 seconds and its an endless review cycle. For a recent project, I produced 23 review versions of the document. Each review cycle was very short, but the entire project took about twice as long was needed. I think the exact same thing happens in every profession now.

  5. It’s the way we use email that lessens productivity. Here are some of my personal “rules” for dealing with the problem. I could probably come up with more, but these are the big ones:
    1. I don’t work 24×7. I work approximately 8×5. I will generally not be checking email on nights and weekends. If you have something important to tell me, you can always call.
    2. I don’t have a smart phone, and I have no immediate plans to get one — specifically because I have no reason to be constantly interrupted by emails. If I’m away from my desk, it’s because I’m doing something else. I’ll get to the email on my own schedule. I do have a cell phone. If it’s really important, call (but if I’m in a meeting I won’t take your call).
    3. Email is not tasking. I don’t believe in “fire and forget”. Especially if you need something quickly. If you want me to do something for you, it’s OK to send the details by email — often there are details or attachments that are needed to understand the tasking. That’s all good. But, if you need something quickly, you must call me. I’m not on it until I agree that I’m on it. That will most probably not be the same time you hit “Send” on the email.
    4. Don’t send me email that I don’t need. You are filling up my inbox with chaff, making it harder to find the wheat. Who does an email need to go to, really? Send it only to those who need it. There are very few reasons to “Reply All”. I rarely need anything I receive as part of a “mailing list”. If I didn’t ask for mailing list info, I don’t need or want it.

  6. IMHO email is a very powerful tool, we just aren’t really good at it yet.

    When you think about it from a historical perspective, as a medium, it’s only 20 years plus old, making it a baby relative to other communication mediums like the telephone and written word.

    Still growing pains associated with email, though it is itself being overtaken by SMS, BBM, and social networking as the preferred communication method.

  7. I don’t know what I would be doing without email. You see I became deaf about 25 years ago. I no longer could answer the phone and talk to anyone. I was a computer operator when that happened and got stuck working nights and weekends hanging tapes and printing out reports. It was sad, boring, no advancement work life. I went back to school, learned sign language , and took programming classes. Finally I moved out and became a programmer but I still couldn’t talk on the phone! But with email I no longer needed to. I could now receive alerts and I can chat with users about their problems anywhere from my desk or at home. I doubt anyone would hire me if we didn’t have email to communicate today.

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