It is unquestionable that email dominates the modern workplace as the standard means of communication, and quite easy to see why. Its speed, usability and scalability make it very efficient while the fact that it offers various ways of sending files and forming messages make it very effective. The average office worker receives 121 emails a day and spends two hours going through emails. Even though email has only been around since 1971, it dominates the workplace.
Do you ever fantasise about opening your inbox to zero unread emails? Or Perhaps you are more realistic, and you simply wish for something less than 100 new emails a day?
It is hard to imagine the modern workplace without email, but can it ever get too much? Two hours spent each day sorting through 121 emails is a significant amount of time which could alternatively be used for something more productive. Studies have linked large volumes of emails to stress and highlights that the constant shift in concentration when going through emails is painful for the human brain. The stress of managing your inbox can create feelings of frustration and panic and ultimately reduce productivity and a drop in levels of engagement. As technology becomes more integral to the workplace, it is important to talk about the challenges it creates as well as the positives. It is time to reflect on the email.
A World Without Email?
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload” discusses the link between email and productivity. Professor Cal explains email was originally brought into the workplace to make communication easier and faster, but it ended up completely changing the foundation of how we work. Suddenly the majority of communication was made through volumes and volumes, and volumes, of emails which required instant replies and a constant monitoring of the inbox. The stress of seeing unread emails pile up coupled with the frenzied shifting of attention from one topic to another can naturally create anxiety and reduce happiness at work, and a slump in productivity. He points out that this is a serious threat for many knowledge workers.
Let’s not be pessimistic, though. Email has many positives, including the ability to connect people and facilitate global collaboration – a very social and human way of working. Problems arise when emails become too many for one human to feasibly handle. It is, therefore, not email itself that is the problem but the way we think about collaboration at work and structure our communication. Does every email require a reply? Do you always have to copy in several people in a message? And is it fair to expect instant replies? Perhaps the best way to re-harness the productivity and employee engagement lost through email is to rethink the underlying assumptions of how we work. Instead of using email as the standard way of tackling most business problems, let’s understand the kind of work each employee does and deploy different tools to do work most efficiently without compromising on employee happiness. It is not a case of completely wiping email out of the workplace, it is a call to adjust our use of it so that emails work for people, and not the other way around.
Technology Bringing The Solution
To be honest though, a workplace without email seems dystopian. Even the more realistic proposition of a workplace with less email seems far away and like it will take much time to accomplish. If the negative effects of email on productivity and employee engagement are to be believed, we need a solution to this problem ASAP. Perhaps the answer to this tech problem is more tech. There are many apps, software and techniques which cater to organising your emails and minimising time spend on them. This creates a better work-life balance with little effort which can quickly relieve those struggling.
There are many examples of email management apps and software. For example, some apps allow users to automatically sort their emails into folders, reducing the need for shifting between different tasks and cutting down the number of emails to be read. Similarly, other apps enable users to create standard replies to emails, speeding response time. Another email management technique is to take action on each email immediately when it gets into the inbox: Do, Defer, Delegate or Delete, and use folders and separate to-do-lists to stay organised. Another such technique is to use different email inboxes for different jobs, projects or tasks so us to allow you to concentrate on the work at hand.
However, this doesn’t solve the problem, instead it conceals it. It will provide a remedy in the short-term but in the long-term, emails will continue to pile up and the amount of work you will have to do may even increase. While an effective solution for the present, it goes a short way at resolving the issue of productivity at work and employee engagement. Following Professor Cal’s line of argument, the workplace needs to deeply rethink the way it organises work, instead of deploying more technology to mask the surface of the problem. Therefore, a long-term answer is yet to be found.
What about the diversity among people and the differences in the way they think, communicate and work? People have different traits and different working styles and are therefore bound to handle email management differently. For example, people with ADHD are likely to find a large number of emails very challenging due to the strain on their attention span, while extroverted workers may feel more connected and motivated from receiving emails from a variety of sources. Before we prescribe a catch-all solution, we have to take into account the various factors which make people’s working styles drastically vary.
This argument is aligned to the above mentioned need to re-think the way we work from the foundations, but it is skeptical about the effectiveness of a one-size-fits-all approach. It highlights differences in individual working styles, personality, mood and job roles and suggests having conversations with different employee groups to understand their relationship to email and what approaches would be most helpful to them. Instead of recommending a uniform organisational change, this argument encourages people to find their best-fit individual way of using email. Technology and other tools are welcome as well as organisational consulting and bottom-up, open-minded discussions. More than anything, this approach advises people to speak up about their preferred way of working in making the necessary changes to accommodate productivity and employee wellbeing in the workplace.
Though there are a many approaches and streams of thought, one thing is certain – the conversation has long started! As an organisation it is critical to prioritise improving email management in order to boost employee happiness and productivity in your workforce. The Covid-19 pandemic and the widespread working from home for many knowledge workers is an opportunity to re-think our use of emails in the long-term and put in place processes which better support mental health and employees’ needs. It is a plan for the long-term but one that will work wonders to improve the happiness of employees. Take this opportunity to reflect on your use of email and come back better, happier and more efficient into the office!
Author bio: Sofia Chatziveroglou is a volunteer at Engage For Success and an HR professional.