Many of us complain about email, but then opening our inbox is the first thing we do when we get to work. Why, and is this really bad for our productivity?
This is the second in our series of posts taken from our recent white paper The Future of Business Communications: Moving Beyond Email. You can read the previous post here or download the full paper here.
There’s no denying that email has some powerful qualities. Email is extremely versatile; you can send an email for virtually any purpose. Email is quick and easy to use, requiring almost no training. Email is cheap to set up, host and run, with a tiny per-message cost. Emails are asynchronous (meaning they stack up) in time/date order. This provides a simple list to work with, which helps to ensure you don’t miss anything.
There is no doubt, as a fast, cheap and easy-to-use communication tool email is hard to beat and it still has fans at the highest level of business and academia. At the World Economic Forum last year Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, confided that she checks her smart phone 150 times a day. Her point was to stress the value of multi-tasking, but many people saw it as an endorsement of the email culture that prevails within large US corporations.
Email is a hard habit to break, or even consider breaking. Perhaps Bob Pozen, a senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Extreme Productivity, sums up the feelings of many busy executives when he writes “I’ve had email since 1983. I couldn’t live the life I live without it.”
And yet there is groundswell of discontent over how email has come to dominate business communications in the past 30 years.The strongest case against email argues that it drains valuable time and resources from organisations, such that the obvious benefits are undermined by a larger, often unseen, cost in lost time and inefficiency.
This argument has powerful backers. Research from Microsoft suggests that employees spend an average of 16 minutes refocusing on their work after reading emails.
As Richard Hughes of BroadVision commented in our webinar discussion: “ we’ve created a distraction economy which is really very unhealthy. I wonder how much more efficient people would be if they all just turned o_ the pop up alerts on their email”.
Other findings highlight the simple inefficiency of our email addiction: the average worker receives over 300 emails per week, checks their email 36 times an hour and spends over 2 hours per day reading and replying to emails, while only one in three emails is deemed essential for work.
While it’s dificult to verify these numbers, there seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence to support them. Last year a pediatrician from Penn State College of Medicine published his estimate that the college was wasting up to $3 million per year in staff time by sending untargeted, mass distribution emails to it’s doctors.
Faced with such evidence, some organisations are already taking dramatic steps to reduce the amount of emails they send. Richard Hughes pointed out in our webinar discussion, “it was headline news when Thierry Breton of Atos said, ‘I’m eradicating all internal email within my organization’. People laughed at him, but he made some genuine progress in doing that. He improved the efficiency of his organization by doing that.”
Evidently, reducing the volume of emails we send may help to limit email overload, but is it merely addressing the symptoms rather than the root cause of the email malaise?
In our webinar discussion (still available to listen online) Richard Hughes provided his own diagnosis: “For simple ephemeral messaging, email is great. It works on any device. You can probably run it on your fridge! As a repository of knowledge, though, it’s really poor. As a collaboration tool, really poor. As a means of ensuring something gets done, really poor.”
His suggestion that email is not suitable for collaboration and knowledge management tasks, but is used for both anyway highlights the inherent risk of adopting such a versatile tool: misuse.
To illustrate his point Richard gave us an example: “there’s nothing wrong with using a fast, ubiquitous communication protocol for sending a short message to say ‘Luke, I’m going to be 10 minutes late. Sorry!’ But if the four of us had exchanged 20 emails each over a period of a week on what we were going to talk about today, email would be a terrible tool for doing that”.
He also explained the challenge, as he sees it, for knowledge management: “email is a very poor repository of company knowledge. A lot of people say ‘I know the answer to that I’ve got it buried in my inbox, which means you’re distributing a company’s knowledge throughout different people’s Outlook folders – which is completely crazy”.
Beyond the risks of email overload and misuse, Belinda Gannaway of Nixon McInnes identified a deeper challenge for organisations:“I keep coming back to this question of trust within organizations. In some organisations your inbox really becomes, not your to-do list, but somebody else’s. And yet, they haven’t actually asked if you’re happy to do those tasks. I think this comes down to the culture of how people in your organisation communicate, how work gets passed around, and how it gets done”.
This concept of the inbox as a means of passing the buck is often cited as one of the downsides of internal email culture. “I didn’t receive the email’ has become the 21st century version of ‘the cheque’s in the post’”, says Richard Hughes, “it’s just far too easy to miss an email, for an overzealous spam filter to get it, or for you to receive it and just ignore it”. Citing recent cases, including that of former BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, he continued, “a lot of high-profile people have been forced to resign for claiming not to have seen an email and fallen foul of email’s lack of accountability and lack of a proper audit trail”.
Perhaps the flip-side of such buck-passing is that many staff experience pressure to constantly check and respond to emails in order to be seen to be working. Belinda Gannaway questioned this in our webinar: “the concept of a healthy digital media diet is something that we’re all struggling with, especially if you think about how many people check their emails in bed, or on holiday. Whether or not that’s a healthy thing I think is really arguable”.
The efficacy of email to communicate the right meaning has also been called into question. A hastily written or read email is very likely to be misunderstood, with potentially calamitous outcomes for the organisation. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (several years ago now) indicates that people only have a 50/50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any email message, while they think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone 90% of the time.
There are evidently many criticisms of corporate email usage, but most of the problems appear to stem from a single root cause. Richard Hughes seemed to hit the nail on the head when he said: “I think the use of email within organizations typically reflects the culture, or the environment, of the organization. I think email can become a productivity tool, as we know, but it can also become a compulsive tool.”
Indeed there is a growing pool of evidence to indicate that the compulsive use of email without adequate investment into processes, training and incentives to ensure it is not misused can reduce workplace productivity and increase overheads.
We’ll be exploring this topic more in the next post in this series, to be published next week.