Technology allows us to work quickly on the move but it's also an unacceptable excuse for bad behaviour. Let's improve our netiquette
For years my daily routine has been different to most people's. I used to start partying early most evenings and managed to keep up with everything. And because nature blessed me with the need for little sleep, I could always start work early. Fifteen years ago, before we had home access to company servers, this meant arriving in the office before 7am most days. I could then begin to work without staff from my then PR and publishing companies coming to talk to me.
Slowly, as people in the office got to know about my early-bird habits, they began arriving well before the official start time, too—some thought they could get an opportunity to talk with me before the phones began to ring and others thought it would impress the boss.
Of course, it did the opposite and defeated the object of the exercise, so I started going to work on Saturdays and then that practice persuaded others to follow suit. It was great to have such enthusiastic people, but privately annoying at the same time.
These days it's easier as most businesspeople will have an office at home or at least keep in touch via their BlackBerry. I rise absurdly early—around 4am—and I'm soon at work on the laptop. I receive about 300 legitimate emails a day ranging from business queries through to matters about the government and charity work I do as well as updates from friends and family. If I don't deal with them within 24 hours, they would never receive a reply.
I can then set my own agenda for the day—emailing managers, assistants, associates and consultants with tasks I would like them to undertake. By the time I head for a breakfast meeting, I'm fully organised and don't become tense about being in meetings with the urge to check emails at the same time. I used to find this practice particularly rude but it's the way of the future. We're no longer desk-bound as we take the desk with us and place it in a neat gadget that fits in our pockets ready to be inspected whenever we hear it ping.
Not everyone follows the same rules of netiquette, though. More and more people, I've noticed, start work before 6am. They spot an email from me and they know I'm online, so they reply. But if they're asking questions back, they expect me to respond quickly because otherwise they think I'm ignoring them, and so slowly my well-oiled system is breaking down.
Here's an interesting thought: has a corporate best-practice module been created for the rules of email engagement? If so, I'm sure that many of us would like to see it and communicate the ideas within our companies.
This is an extremely selfish observation but it's my company, and if you're exchanging emails primarily to show that you, too, are working crazy hours, consider this: you don't need to follow my pattern and you're now slowing me down. Unlike many businesspeople, I don't have a PA who responds to, or even reads, my mails and I would never want to reach that stage. I remember once emailing a friend about a lovely woman I had met only to receive a reply from his PA saying she sounded wonderful. I also don't want to receive emails from friends' PAs asking me when I am free for dinner. Why can't the lazy sods ask me themselves?
This way of communicating is becoming confusing and everyone seems to be making up the rules. Rather than having organisations which help businesses stage summits on topics such as how to handle VAT rises or import duties, can't we have one which creates a declaration on proper email conduct?
In a 1980s movie Chevy Chase played an ambitious executive in a large organisation. In one memorable scene his wife complains about how hard he is working and he snaps back: "Look, I've worked really hard to get to work this hard." Surely, we should have moved on from those days.
Email allows us to communicate at our own pace and this liberates us to do much more than previous generations of business leaders could have imagined. It doesn't need to be used to make macho statements about how hard we work or how important we are.
It's now 7.30am on a Sunday and I'm about to email this column to the editor of Director. I hope he's impressed...