The Trolleyology Conundrum
and the Zen of Compartmentalization

Every parent knows that the supermarket is a minefield of distractions with a kid in tow. The simple act of buying a gallon of milk with a child also means running through a gauntlet of treats and junk food that seem strategically placed for the sole purpose of pulling your shopping trip off course.

If you’ve ever wondered why food staples like milk, eggs, and bread seem so hard to locate, it’s not by accident. Sstore owners know how you move through the aisles, and they design the store so that distractions, enticements, and diversions, are always there to pull you astray from your intended shopping list.

In Australia, they even have a name for this ploy called “trolleyology” (not to be confused with the philosophical thought experiment in the U.S.). At the supermarket, so much is pulling your attention away from where it should be focused, and the items that are least important still have equal — if not greater — visibility as the items that you want.

Actually, the supermarket can be a lot like work.

Typically, the communications we receive at work all have the same level of priority. Messages that require immediate attention get lumped into the same pile with others that are “just a heads up,” meeting requests, or company memos, for example. No matter the content, these messages are thrown into the same pot, and the most common way to separate out the critical from the noncritical is to go through and delete them one at a time.

According to the Harvard Business Review, we actually receive more noncritical emails than critical ones. They found that an average worker receives 3,000 emails per year, if you factor out all the junk that never reaches the inbox. Of that, 58% are noncritical emails, which adds up to about 1,700 messages per year — about 6.5 per day — that don’t require your immediate attention. Buried in there are the messages you actually need; the metaphorical milk hidden in a freezer behind all the aisles of junk food.

What if we could reorganize our workplace supermarket? Imagine walking into a store and finding it segmented into different rooms: one room for the essentials, another for useful kitchen utensils, and yet another for all the fun stuff.

In fact, the way we communicate in our personal lives already exemplifies this type of ideal organizational structure, while the “trolleyology” format is more akin to the traditional way of communicating at work. After all, when was the last time you shared an interesting news article by sending a mass email to friends? More likely, you would share the article publicly through Facebook, and tag specific friends so they’re sure to see it.

Outside of work, most of what we say, write, and publish is directed through the most appropriate communication channel. We share news and miscellaneous thoughts on Facebook, snap photos of our daily lives and post them to Instagram, compile our complex thoughts and beliefs into blogs, and privately message friends and family as necessary. Though we sift through and publish massive amounts of content, we rarely have any difficulty obtaining the information we need when we need it — the important content rises to the top with ease, while all the rest is always there when we choose to look.

This wasn’t always the case. However, shifts in social technology — particularly with the rise of the mobile Internet and social apps — have pushed more communications out of the inbox and into specialized applications and software.

Indeed, very few people rely on only one communication channel, and the average person has three social networking accounts, according to a report by The Radicati Group.

Correspondingly, it’s been said that email is about to die, or it’s already dead. That’s far from accurate. Email isn’t dead or dying, but it is being refined to serve a more targeted and useful purpose. As with other communications tools, email is just one aisle in our perfectly organized, dream supermarket. It has things we need — for instance, email is well suited to handle our formal communications and correspondence with individuals outside our own company — but we don’t need to go there for everything.

Other tools, of course, are better at serving other functions throughout the work day. Yammer is well suited for hosting all-inclusive group conversations. Skype provides remote, real-time group brainstorming sessions when in-person meetups aren’t feasible. IM is perfect for quick heads-up messages. OneNote gives us the ability to collectively view and simultaneously edit a single, flexible document, while SharePoint serves as a publishing environment for formal communications to a wide audience.

At Carpool, we don’t exclude email, but we do put it in its proper place within a compartmentalized communications structure. We divide our communications into three classifications: Informal, formal, and doing work. In this way, we don’t completely eliminate the background noise of the workplace. This “noise” can be beneficial because it ensures that information does not vanish into a vacuous email chain, and is instead out in the open for all who want to participate. Yet even with so much information available, we are able to keep track of the information we need to get work done.