The benefits of reducing emails

6 November 2017 Category:
Pressure

Getting back to work after a break – whether it’s a holiday, a day off, or even an occasional lunch – is often accompanied by feelings of renewed energy, vigour and purpose. A rest, a change of scene, and you’re much better prepared to tackle your to-do list head-on. Increasingly, though, that renewed energy and vigour can be accompanied by a deep dread of what awaits you on arrival: the overwhelming pile of emails demanding your attention.

And you don’t need to be away from the office to start feeling overwhelmed. Most people can now see incoming emails pinging into their handset or device every few minutes – wherever they are and whatever the time of day. One technology market research firm estimates that workers send and receive on average more than 120 emails a day. Whether at your desk or not, you’ll potentially be distracted by an incoming email every four minutes.

Of course email has revolutionised business communication in the last 20 years. Its speed, efficiency and relatively low cost has seen usage balloon, with the estimated daily volume of emails in 2017 coming in at around 270 billion, up from 182 billion in 2013.

Speed, efficiency and relatively low cost has seen email usage balloon, with the estimated daily volume of emails in 2017 coming in at around 270 billion, up from 182 billion in 2013.

But we’re increasingly relying on email for things it was never designed to do. The inbox has become our task manager, to-do list, de facto project management tool and, for many of us, our essential data archive. As Oliver Burkeman says in his book Help!, ‘your inbox shouldn’t be a place to store emails: you wouldn’t store regular mail on your doormat… Yet that’s how we treat email.’ This suggests that not only are we misusing the tool (generating excessive volumes of email in the process) we’re subjecting ourselves to overload and stress by failing to manage it properly. 

The big problems with email

Let’s look at some key issues when it comes to emails and our working lives.

1. Loss of productivity: According to a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, the average worker spends over a quarter of the working week replying to and managing email. With traffic set to rise by an average of 4.4% per annum over the next four years, that puts increasing pressure on workers to perform other tasks in less time. Without any plans to mitigate that rise, productivity will suffer. Recent reliable figures are hard to come by but back in 2010 one firm of analysts estimated the loss to the US economy from information overload and unnecessary interruptions at close to USD 1tr. That’s a lot of productivity down the drain.

2. Distraction, stress and overload: As Daantje Derks and Arnold Bakker observe in Cyberpsychology, ‘the costs of email are disproportionately loaded on the recipient who engages in continuous activity switching between email and other tasks’. Constant monitoring – and the accompanying distraction – has a big impact on these recipients, as they attempt to respond in line with senders’ expectations. ‘Each fragmentation to a task,’ say Derks and Bakker, ‘adds to the total time required to complete it.’ On top of the time-consuming distraction, this research also indicates that with incoming email comes a pressure to reply quickly; whether the sender makes this explicit or the recipient simply infers it.

3. Ineffective collaboration: While email makes it possible to send large amounts of information to multiple recipients in a short time, it’s a poor tool for collaboration in cases where interdependent projects need an easily accessible and transparent platform. Trawling haphazardly through endless email threads is an inefficient way of managing a project. What if you joined the thread late? Or if the thread doesn’t include all the relevant people, limiting your access to vital information? As Laura Dabbish and Robert Kraut note in Email overload at work, these extended functions derive from email’s role as the communication medium of choice. ‘People use [email] for task and information management,’ their research says, ‘because so many of their tasks and so much of their information is exchanged via electronic mail.’ In short, if we stop using email to pass information around, we’re also likely to stop using it as an inefficient task or project management tool.

4. Miscommunication: Given the inherent absence of non-verbal cues such as intonation, emphasis and emotional expression, emails are by definition ambiguous. And the ambiguities tend to generate even more emails back and forth, as recipients seek clarification. As Derks and Bakker underline in Cyberpsychology ‘miscommunication can be a source of stress because an employee has to take action to correct the message which automatically implies that extra time and attention is needed…’. 

Beware solutions that promise the world

As these problems seem to be driven by both organisational and personal factors, we need solutions that address both elements. But beware some of the solutions touted as panaceas to the overload. In their widely-quoted research paper A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons, Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida found that restricting email access reduced stress levels and lowered overall multi-tasking. On the other hand, limiting email access to certain times of the day can be counterproductive. Contrary to the findings of Mark and Voida, Email overload at work suggests that frequent email checking actually reduces feelings of overload, as people feel more in control if they can deal with important emails as soon as they arrive, rather than waiting for them to pile up.

Dabbish and Kraut also reveal that face-to-face meetings designed to reduce email traffic end up generating yet more follow-up email: the more meetings, the more email.

Dabbish and Kraut also reveal that face-to-face meetings designed to reduce email traffic end up generating yet more follow-up email: the more meetings, the more email.

And if you think archiving everything into multiple folders will relieve stress, you may also be disappointed: the same research found that ‘maintaining larger numbers of email folders was also associated with higher levels of email overload…’.

Changing personal behaviour – five rules

Organisational changes take time to implement, but what can we do on a more personal level to improve our behaviour and make life easier for our colleagues? Following five simple rules would result in a big improvement in email etiquette all round:

1. Include a clear subject line. This makes it easier to prioritise incoming emails and improves the effectiveness of the search function.

2. Use executive summaries in longer emails, with a concise bullet point summary at the head of the message.

3. Don’t copy in others. If you do – and there’s no expectation of a reply from those cc recipients – make that clear with phrases such as ‘no reply needed’ or ‘for information only’.

4. Cut the thread. Reading through endless threads is time-consuming. If you need to include some of the thread to provide context, limit it to three emails, and delete anything that’s irrelevant.

5. Consider making a phone call instead. It could save both you and your correspondent a lot of time. 

Organisational changes

In 2011, the CEO of French technology company Atos SE famously announced a zero-email policy, designed to reduce the time wasted on internal communication, and in its place implemented a social network for the entire enterprise. As David Burkus points out in his book Under New Management, this change soon resulted in feelings of improved productivity and greater collaboration among staff. By 2013 it had contributed to increased operating margins and a reduction in administrative costs, from 13% to 10%.

With some estimates suggesting internal employee-to-employee email accounts for over 60% of our inbox, new approaches to information sharing certainly merit attention. Enterprise social networks allow employees to join open, transparent communities which they can access to retrieve vital information as well as share knowledge company-wide. The MGI report estimates that around 20% of an employee’s time is spent searching for and gathering information, so the introduction of a network that can bypass unshared drives and give quicker access to that information is likely to save time and improve efficiency. And because these networks offer better ways of archiving information by project or work stream, the stresses involved in managing multiple files are eliminated and retrieval is simplified.

According to the MGI report of 2012, enterprise social networks can cut the time employees spend searching for information by up to 35%, and bring additional value through faster, more effective collaboration. What’s more, the same report estimated that the total time saved could bring productivity improvements of between 20% and 25%. 

Social networks – the future

Off-the-shelf, open, transparent networks are the antithesis of email and are now widely available. The enterprise social network Slack, for example, organises discussions into channels or work streams, with relevant files, uploads and incoming messages indexed and searchable, providing a transparent platform to access the collective knowledge of your business. Jive fulfils a similar function, allowing you to harness the power of ‘collective intelligence and corporate memory’ to increase productivity. Along with Microsoft’s Yammer, these tools facilitate greater collaboration amongst employees, who can access important up-to-date messages and information which might otherwise be loitering on an inaccessible unshared drive in – you guessed it – someone’s email. 

You’ve got no mail

Although we’re unlikely to eradicate email completely in the near future, the sooner we move away from its data silo characteristics, the sooner we will start promoting more efficient, collaborative working practices which improve productivity and create happier employees.

Although we’re unlikely to eradicate email completely in the near future, the sooner we move away from its data silo characteristics, the sooner we will start promoting more efficient, collaborative working practices which improve productivity and create happier employees.

The return to work has never looked so inviting.

About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup
About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup

With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.