From Inbox Zero to Inbox Comes Second

Often, the work I do feels invisible. I’m not building a feature or designing a website. I’m ensuring that our support team (a sect of tech with an industry standard of high turnover) has the information they need, doesn’t suffer from too much burn out, and is empowered to make their own decisions. Part of my job this year has been to adjust our team’s culture: a shift that has often felt like repeatedly rerouting a ship’s course.

When we lost a successful, tenured employee to Help Scout last December, we suffered a bittersweet loss. Only a few weeks later did we abruptly lose a newer employee, which became a more challenging loss than anticipated. The combination of losing a long-term team member who shaped our team culture and experiencing a contentious departure by that newer team member hit our morale pretty hard. With shaken morale, we also had to work through the busiest time of the year with those two gone and a third person on paternity leave: we were working at 70% capacity at the height of busy season with a stressed-out team.

January is notoriously busy for us and is always a bit of a shock to the system after the lackadaisical holiday season when customers don’t write to us often. The sluggish season offers a nice break for us after another year of work and allows us to bond with each other and our families. Since customers aren’t writing to us, we seldom have a backlog and rarely a queue, which means we can respond to customers within minutes. November and December are often Inbox Zero.

Enter January. Enter 70% capacity. Enter low morale. Enter a swell from n emails to 6n emails. Enter an obsession with an idealized and impossible image of Inbox Zero.

Enter negativity.

Each day felt like a packed CTA train at rush hour in the winter: sweaty, steamy, and uncomfortable. We went from each answering 60 emails per day to answering 150 per day. I couldn’t spend any time on admin work since we were down three bodies, which meant I couldn’t even begin the hiring process until February. I was too busy to work.

Meanwhile, the team felt the pressure of Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero is an arbitrary goal; there will always be another customer email or phone call or tweet. Inbox Zero is a fruitless fight for control. It became an image that tied us to our screens, that swallowed any self-care practices we had instilled over the years. It also became a habit of treating our customers less like humans who needed support and more like screens to get rid of.

By March, we finally hired two new folks: Carrie and Elizabeth. We brought them to Portland and welcomed them to our damaged team by accidentally showcasing our stress. During a 1-on-1 with Carrie, she brought up how disappointed she was by our negativity and stress: we hired her to help alleviate stress only to pass our stress onto her. Carrie opened our eyes to our bad habits and the true depth of our low morale. Together, she and Elizabeth showed us their fresh perspectives and willingness to fight the negativity we had introduced them to. Without them, we might still be spiraling.

But, we’re still a work in progress. While we’re not where I want us to be — there’s some lingering negativity and stress — I see movement. Part of that movement has been to stop following the 37signals hiring standard to “Hire When It Hurts.” That doesn’t work in support. If you’re waiting for The Hurt to tell you to hire, then your perspective is off and you’re expecting your team to carry the weight of another workload. Instead of carrying extra weight, we’re working on creating space for personal projects, better communication, innovation, brainstorming; if you can’t breathe, then you can’t think.

So, during the summer, we hired Jayne. Last month, we welcomed Esther and Janice. Last week, we promoted Natalie, a senior support employee, to help manage the team (we’re now at a total of 14). We hired more and created a new managerial position to help open that much-needed and well-deserved space for the more-tenured employees to relax into.

And, while we lost two people last year, we gained five this year. That’s five fresh perspectives to hold us accountable to our high standards while reminding us to remain human and keep ourselves first: Inbox Comes Second.