E-mail at Work
The Internet has become an indispensable tool for many of us, and I know for myself that I won't stay at a hotel unless I know that it has some Internet access. I personally check email at least twice a day, even on weekends and holidays, and can't help wondering what is going on if I don't. Is this some phobia or anxiety induced by constant emailing? Possibly, but it's also the umbilical cord to my business world.
But while the e-mail culture is thoroughly embedded in many Westerners, the Japanese are still trying to decide whether it's important or not. This contrast was never so obvious as in Japanese companies, where e-mail policies are often inconsistent and where your Bucho or Kacho's own feelings about using it are probably most important. Typically I find that there are three issues with email that are open to cross-cultural conflict.
1) Personal e-mail. Firstly, most companies don't like you using e-mail for personal purposes at work. Whether it's a private or corporate account, if you're found sending personal messages, you will lose the trust of your boss and colleagues and become known as just "one of those unreliable foreigners." This can be pretty disheartening and it will make it difficult to get into a position of trust and responsibility, even if you've been slaving away with lots of unpaid overtime. So, the time for personal emails if you're working in a Japanese company, is at home, on the keitai during lunch hour and when traveling to/from customer's offices.
Big note here. Just as in other countries, companies here have the right to scan your email. So even if you're not caught directly, you could always be confronted later based on records from the IT department.
2) E-mail instead of discussion. I find that e-mail is a bit insidious in terms of replacing regular human communication. Japanese in particular need face-to-face time, and this can't be done by email. If you feel that you have a problem or need to work something out, get up from that keyboard and go and see the person involved. Indeed, in my company, the only reasons employees use email between each other is to document or cc: something, make a broad announcement to a group, or to set up a meeting time.
3) Time spent doing e-mail. Many Japanese companies don't like you spending too much time at the computer with e-mail. This is especially true if you're in sales where most Sales Managers want to see you either on the phone or out making customer visits. In my opinion, this is actually a good policy. I think that the best time to do e-mail is after hours. The medium was made to do in a "time-lapse" manner, not to try and get instant responses from someone - that's what the telephone is for. Also, make sure that e-mail doesn't become your life, unless you're really being paid to do it (like answering overseas customer requests online). Especially if you're in sales, have the company set up a web page with the most common questions people are asking you, so you can direct them to it.
Lastly, e-mail can get out of hand, especially if you're published on the Web and you get lots of spam, as I do (about 80% of my 1,000 or so messages a day are spam!). When you find spam overwhelming your work efforts, it's time to go and talk to your boss and the IT department. There are some good programs out there recently which can really reduce the amount of spam you're getting. Recently I've been using Mozilla, which has an excellent spam filter. Also, you might try changing your e-mail reader.
If you are considering a career in the recruiting industry, you can drop Terrie Lloyd an email for more advice at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also see his weekly newsletter, called Terrie's Take, at www.terrie.com.