Fix This/Workplace

How to Cope With E-Mail Overload at Work


Justin Rosenstein, co-founder, Asana

Justin Rosenstein, co-founder, Asana

Asana’s Justin Rosenstein joins our experts discussing e-mail overload, open office plans, telecommuting, and eating lunch at their desks.

Where does e-mail rank in terms of problems of the modern workplace?
I would say that the use of e-mail and the problems surrounding e-mail are the No. 1 problem. McKinsey found that 30 percent of people’s time is spent literally just on e-mail and reading and writing e-mail. Another 20 percent of people’s time is spent on trying to get pieces of information that their co-workers already know. E-mail becomes this completely unmanaged to-do list that someone else created for you.

Silicon Valley keeps trying to fix e-mail, and nothing has caught on yet. Why?
The fact that you see all these different efforts is a real testament to how hungry everyone is for the thing that’s after e-mail. But when people try to make efforts at improving it, they often end up just adding one layer on top of e-mail. A lot of times these efforts are really just lipstick on a pig.

What’s Asana?
Asana kind of provides a team brain. If you’re leading a team, there’s a set of basic questions that you just want answers to all the time: What are all the steps between now and accomplishing our goal? Who’s responsible for each of those steps? What’s the state of each of those things? And yet, amazingly, when you go into the vast majority of organizations, people can’t give you answers to those basic questions. Rather than having the information decentralized over lots of different conversations and e-mails, we give you a canonical record of all the information. You don’t have to come over to my desk and ask me or have me forward them in an e-mail.

How does your software deal with distraction through overcommunication?
We have a feature called focus mode. So if you’re working on a task, you can just hit one keyboard shortcut and if new messages come in we won’t tell you about them.

It’s also really well understood that humans can’t resist clicking on red dots, right? Red is just this color that in our evolutionary history meant danger, and when you see something red, it just has this strong psychological pull. Our goal is not to addict you. Our goal is to help you get work done. So our little notification icon that tells you that you have new messages is blue.

Can digital technology solve all the problems of the modern-day workplace? And if not, then what’s left?
A lot of times the problem is that people are unmotivated or can’t make the best decisions because they don’t have a bigger-picture understanding of why they’re doing this work in the first place. We’re trying to make it so that Asana helps give you as much of that clarity as possible. But obviously, it’s just a piece of software that helps humans communicate better. It has to be a partnership.

What does your physical workspace look like?
We give everyone at the company $10,000 to spend on creating their ideal physical workspace setup. So I’ve done that with having a sit-stand desk and having two monitors and just having a really, really good workspace setup.

The office as a whole is really well optimized so that people can get into flow, that really juicy state where you’re not distracted, where there aren’t lots of things competing for your attention, and where you can just focus on the task at hand.

How often do you eat at your desk?
Once a month. We have lunch, breakfast, and dinner here. Even though we only have 60 people, we have three full-time chefs. Some people say that seems decadent, but it’s not that expensive in the grand scheme of things. People are eating together, and that’s a really rich, important part of our culture.

For more Fix This/Workplace, visit: www.businessweek.com/fix-this/workplace.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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