WordPress.com is the 15th most popular website on the planet. With no offices, all employees work remotely. The company adheres to few rules and even fewer meetings. And they don’t use email.
That’s right. Can you imagine giving up email? I wasn’t so sure about it either. But after a year working at WordPress, I understood how an entire online organization could not only function without email — they also were more productive.
Email is first thing you check in the morning, and it’s your last thought before shutting down at the end of the day. The piles and piles of important (and not-so-important) messages hitting your inbox every second… you’re probably stressed just thinking about it. Read on to learn how it’s possible to completely cut email out of your life.
How can any modern organization function without email, much less one as successful as WordPress?
First, it’s important to recognize that, despite everyone’s complaints about endless streams of useless email, most people are dubious about following WordPress’s lead to email liberation. We have a deeply ingrained distrust when it comes to alternatives, which is odd given how we pride ourselves on being early adopters of new ideas.
Email is an old technology, older than the Web itself by more than a decade. So why do we cling so tightly to our “cc” lines and attachments?
The reasons have little to do with technology
All technologies are good for some tasks and bad for others. If a technology annoys you, it probably has more to do with how the people around you use it than the technology itself. (Click here to Tweet this thought.)
Consider this: for all our technological progress, we’ve yet to invent anything that makes coworkers write clear, jargon-free paragraphs. We have yet to find a way to get them to actually read, not skim, the well-crafted things we send their way. It’s our culture that defines these habits, not the tools we’re using. Culture bends technology to its will, not the other way around.
Most annoying business emails have two purposes, neither of which get meaningful work done:
1. The ass-covering email
Email is broadcast to entire divisions simply to ensure no one can say they didn’t hear about a decision. Email is a weapon used for pre-emptive political strikes by the sender to attack everyone on the distribution list. We hate email because we feel like email victims at the mercy of self-interested people who don’t share our goals.
2. The “hey look what I did!” email
For people who don’t actually create things for their job, email is the only visible, tangible thing they make all day. Dysfunctional, insecure cultures confuse the meta-work of email and PowerPoint decks for the actual work of helping customers.
In these environments, people feel obligated to send more emails and create larger and larger documents to give the perception that they’re working hard. It’s a downward spiral of anti-productivity.
WordPress avoids these problems because most of their 170 employees do actual work — they write code, design features or directly help customers. And they’re empowered to be aggressive in their jobs, making live changes to the service dozens of times a day with no approval chain or executive review board.
There’s little fear of crossing political turf and no need to show off as their work speaks for itself. The result is that their communication channels have a high signal-to-noise ratio.
Why dysfunctional email is holding back your organization
Putting WordPress aside for the moment, email has several fundamental disadvantages that are rarely discussed:
1. Email empowers the sender
The sender can fill your inbox with whatever they like and as frequently as they like. Many receivers use filters and rules as countermeasures.
2. Email is a closed channel
There’s no way to see an email if you’re not included on the ‘‘to’’ list, forcing work groups to err on the side of carpet bombing entire project teams or even companies. We all feel that only a fraction of the email we receive has direct relevance to us as individuals. Email tends to bury people in “FYI” communications — needless messages unworthy for inboxes.
3. Email decays over time
If someone writes a great email, an employee has to do something to preserve it. Otherwise, it sits in an inbox, never to be seen by new employees. Over time, that organizational knowledge fades away.
How WordPress evades the email trap
The single tool most WordPress employees use is — surprise — blogs!
The dominant blog structure WordPress staff use is the P2 theme, which was specifically designed for teamwork. The specifications and spreadsheets that might be sent over email at your average company are simply posted on blogs for each team or project. Most discussions happen in comment threads, chat rooms or on Skype. If you care about that project, you follow the blog. If you don’t, you don’t.
Blogs, and P2s in particular, are designed to serve each employee’s individual needs:
1. Readers, not senders, choose what gets read
Employees can pick which project blogs they want to follow and can ignore the ones that have no value for their work.
2. Readers choose how often and in what form they want to read
There are many different tools available for reading blog posts. If you really want to receive post updates by email, you can! But you get to choose. So if email’s not your thing, no problem. You can use RSS or other methods.
3. Blogs are easy to access, search and reference
That great list of ideas you wrote a year ago won’t get buried and lost in people’s inboxes. As a blog post, the link will always be available and can be searched and skimmed just like all the blogs on the Web you read every day.
Of course, there’s more to the story. WordPress has no schedules. There are few meetings and fewer rules. And the kicker to all of it is every employee works remotely from anywhere in the world they want. How do employees in such a progressive culture still get work done? You’ll have to read the book to find out!
Scott Berkun is the author of the new book The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. He has written four previous books. His popular essays and entertaining lectures can be found at his blog at www.scottberkun.com.