The best way to recover from a technological bungle
If you do send an idiotic email at work, just apologise and move on – never try to recall it
The idiotic mistakes we make at work are awful and getting worse. Photograph: Getty Images
The other day when I got to work I found an email from a PR woman I have never met, congratulating me on my new job at City AM, a newspaper I have never worked for.
“Sorry,” she wrote in a hasty follow-up mail. “Clearly not concentrating.”
I would have ignored this, except it came within hours of another email from someone who wondered if I would be interested to know that, as a result of the soaring stock market, the value of employee share schemes “has shit a 10-year high of £2.5 billion”.
Before I had a chance to say I did find that quite interesting, this writer also emailed back to apologise for “the very unfortunate typo in my last email”.
Things did not end there. The next day I heard from two men, one from an investment bank, the other a credit-rating agency. Both had made email muck-ups they needed to correct.
These people are far from alone. The idiotic mistakes we make at work are awful and getting worse.
I know this, because I make so many myself. The other week, I gave one colleague a mis-typed email address for someone she needed to contact and another the wrong date for a meeting. Then I nearly filed a story with the name of one person spelt two different ways. None of this is surprising considering the relentless digital distraction that afflicts working life.
Researchers have been warning for years that people who constantly juggle emails, texts and messages do not memorise or manage their work as well as those who pay attention to one thing at a time.
Digital overload has been estimated to cost as much as $997 billion (€843 billion) a year in lost productivity and innovation, just in the US. No wonder, when it is claimed we tap, swipe and click our phones an average of 2,617 times a day.
I was not remotely surprised to read this month that even the tech designer who invented the fiendishly addictive pull-to-refresh system worries about its impact and is trying to wean himself off the digital onslaught.
I am more astonished that the levels of office bungling are not far worse. It is still relatively rare to see a stonking blunder, such as the $6 billion (€5 billion) a Deutsche Bank staffer accidentally transferred to a customer a couple of years ago. Or the Bank of England official who mistakenly emailed details of a secret study on the financial risks of Brexit to a journalist at around the same time.
Yet the toll of mass distraction mounts daily. A minor industry has emerged to help people mute, block, control and switch off. Most of us already know the drill. Set filters on your email. Automate your posts. Learn to turn your phone off. Go for more walks. I have tried a lot of these ploys. They are all excellent in theory but hard to put into practice.
One big lesson I have learnt is this: if you do happen to send an idiotic email at work, unless you have caused a stock market meltdown, just apologise and move on. Never try to recall it.
A trawl through my inbox shows there was only one month this year – August – when I did not get at least one message from someone announcing they “would like to recall” an email.
In almost every case, I did what everyone does in this situation. I tracked down the errant note to see what it said. Sometimes there is no need to do even that.
On the day Britons voted to exit the EU last year, Ryanair’s PR people tried to recall an embargoed announcement that the airline was launching a 24-hour sale “to celebrate remaining in Europe”.
And I still feel sorry for the person at an architectural firm who tried to retrieve something she had fired off to me the other week. Her email began with a perfectly polite response to an article I had written about the scourge of the open-plan office.
As I scrolled down to see why she had bothered to try to call back such an inoffensive note, I saw it included an unfortunate email trail from her colleagues, who had offered their thoughts on what she should be saying to me.
“The thing that really annoyed me about this piece, is that clearly employees have no idea how space is intended to support them,” snorted one of them.
It could have been worse. I am sure I have done things far more stupid. But I doubt I would ever have read this unless I had been told that I shouldn’t.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)