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A Glitch in Time

July 28, 2010 By: Michael Browne

When something makes our lives easier, we tend to take it for granted. At the press of a button, the chore becomes the responsibility of the tool. It’s a nice thought, but tools—or appliances, systems, whatever—are not going to take any responsibility, as I learned in the past when the dishwasher flooded the kitchen and the air conditioner failed to replace its filter.

This is true even of one of the greatest tools of modern business, e-mail. I’m not ashamed to say that, although there are days when the constant bing of my e-mail alert drives me nearly to distraction, I do secretly love e-mail. Perhaps too much—with four personal and one work e-mail address to keep up with (not to mention Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, et al.), I sometimes find it difficult to keep up. Still, it’s a lot better than the constant interruption of the phone ringing, or fax machine blaring (do they still exist?), not to mention time-consuming visits from associates and clients, and paper mail cluttering every inch of your workspace. For people who remember that as the norm in the office, e-mail has been a godsend.

But things do go wrong, and when there is a glitch in one of your most important work tools the ramifications can be huge. I had my own “case of the missing e-mail” this week when I sent e-mails to my office that were never received and resulted in confusion at work and embarrassment and apologies from me. It’s uncomfortable to have to tell a supplier or client, or in my case, supervisor or co-worker, that “the e-mail didn’t get through.” It feels like the equivalent of “the check’s in the mail” or “the dog ate my homework.”

A couple of things can make you feel more at ease before and after hitting the “send” button. For one thing, most e-mail systems include a “receipt requested” option. Yes, this adds to clutter but it’s good clutter. Also, make the follow-up call. I know, you use e-mail to avoid these calls but nine out of 10 times you’re not going to get the person on the phone anyway but you do get to reiterate the message.
And for those e-mails that end up in someone else’s in box, I’d like to remind everyone of the Golden Rule and suggest we all do unto others. Translation: If you get something that isn't yours, pay it forward — literally — by forwarding it. (At this point, I have to give a shout out to my coworker Melissa Brown in Acounts Payable for  patiently forwarding all of the e-mails intended for me over the past two years.)

These are things that we should probably be doing anyway, but like I said, once we get comfortable we take things for granted. Trust me, that approach, in the end, can become extremely uncomfortable.

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