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Email overload is killing the UK's economic productivity

Mounting evidence suggests email is a blight on the UK’s economic productivity – but services outsourcing firm Atos has found a way to stem the tide

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We've all been there. You get back to work after a relaxing holiday – only to find your inbox inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of emails. The first day back is spent browsing every email to see if any are relevant, responding to those that are and deleting the rest – regardless of the projects left outstanding during your absence.

Likewise, with a deadline looming, you're saturated with emails distracting you from the project at hand. 

These are all symptoms of a much greater problem that needs addressing.

Psychologist and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, Cary Cooper, gave the keynote speech at the recent annual conference of the British Psychological Society. This speech was entitled Wellbeing in the Workplace, in which he revealed how an "Email epidemic"  was damaging UK productivity.

Society is becoming increasingly digitally connected – not just with computers and laptops, but phones and watches too. We are electronically overloaded because we are not managing email properly and businesses are not providing employees with adequate guidelines. “Emails and social media are very useful and important for business,” explains Cary Cooper. “I think the difficulty is, that we are not managing it, it is managing us.”

Despite the economy slowly recovering, the UK’s productivity is one of the lowest in the G7 countries. Cooper suggests this is due in part to email overload – people are writing emails and believing it to be work. “We are getting into this thinking that emails are an end unto themselves,” explains Cooper. “They are not; they are a means to an end.” The time spent reviewing and composing emails is time taken away from creating products.

We are also increasing digitally accessible, and hence rarely switched-off in taking a break from work. “The leading cause of sickness in most developed countries is now stress and mental ill-health,” says Cooper. This lack of disconnect from our work after we have finished for the day is contributing to the rising cost affecting UK productivity. “It is costing the UK economy £27bn a year, which is very costly for business – we need to look at the sources of this.”

Minimise staff email overload

Cooper recommends businesses introduce the guidelines to minimise email overload for their employees:

  • Do not send emails to people in the same building as you.
    Emails are reducing face-to-face contact, which is important for team-building. Misunderstandings frequently arise with emails.
  • Do not CC anybody unless they are absolutely vital to the point you are trying to make.
    This creates all sorts of problems, as everybody is getting everybody else’s email.
  • Add a priority to an email, with a timescale as to how soon a reply is required.
    This is easy to implement (Outlook, for example, allows emails to be tagged “low importance” or “high importance”), yet few choose use this functionality.
  • Do not check your work emails at night, on holiday or over the weekend.
    Unless it is absolutely critical, employees should not check emails outside office hours.
  • A notification system that informs employees when they are checking emails outside office hours.
    This is not to prevent emails, but to raise awareness of how often emails are being checked. This can enable discussion of whether it is really necessary.

Banning emails is not the answer, as email is the most appropriate method for communicating certain types of information. But a cultural change is needed, so that information is distributed in the most efficient manner – and that will not always be email.

Read more about email overload

Cooper’s observations are not new. Last year French employers' federations signed an agreement with unions that require employers to ensure staff "disconnect" outside of working hours. While the EU Working Time Directive sets a limit of 48 hours per week, it comes with some exceptions and was devised before the proliferation of smartphones.

Alternatives to email

Some companies in the UK are already taking steps to address this problem. Asda, for example, has for many years hosted standard documentation on an Extranet. An extranet – such as the-project by Sarcophagus – is a gated online network, which allows employees and external contractors to access, search and download documents whenever they want, reducing emails and waiting time.

Collaborative software tools that provide document management systems, such as Oracle WebCenter, allow users not only to host, but also to track, manage and store documents collaboratively. Used properly, these can tools can form part of an effective workflow programme to reduce email traffic.

One of the reasons email has become the default choice for communicating is that the sender does not wish to disturb their colleagues if they are in a meeting. Organisations can use chat clients, such as Microsoft Lync, as an alternative messaging system. By highlighting whether someone is available or not, telephone and face-to-face conversations are encouraged.

However, the informal nature of instant messaging means some users adopt a more casual approach in their use, without realising it may be inappropriate. This can be mitigated by transcripts of chat conversations being archived as part the user’s email account.

The easy dissemination of information is only a small step towards addressing the email epidemic. The answer ultimately requires a cultural shift – users need not just access to these systems, but a desire to use them as well.

Atos goes for zero email

Atos, an IT services company, launched a Zero email programme in 2011. “It is cultural change, where we change people’s approach in how they communicate,” explains Marc Mosthav, CIO for Atos UK & Ireland. “Sending internal emails is seen as not the 'done' thing.”

Following the acquisition of enterprise social software provider blueKiwi, Atos began using its social enterprise networking platform internally as an alternative to email. While sharing some similarities with Wikipedia – users can post and edit pages – enterprise social networking allows employees to pose questions to a large community.

Enterprise social networking focuses on the use of online social networks and social relations among employees to disseminate information and share knowledge.

Atos's announcement initially met with scepticism, both internally and externally, as it amounted to much more than a technology roll-out, but a cultural shift. “Unless we tackle the culture, we are not going to succeed. We needed to ensure it was led from the top,” says Mosthav.

The key element to blueKiwi’s enterprise social networking is the creation of “spaces”. These spaces are much like online communities, in that they comprise a series of users linked by a common purpose. These spaces can be dedicated to sharing information pertaining to functions, service lines, projects or customers.

The success of these spaces depends on the strength of purpose for the space and how relevant it remains. Those that are vibrant and continue to be successful have a purpose. “What we found, particularly in the beginning of the programme, is that people were creating communities without thinking about why people would want to actively participate in it,” cautions Mosthav.

Email drops as productivity rises

It is important to recognise that people need to witness the benefits and want to use enterprise social networking systems.

“Enterprise Social Networking is a pull, rather than a push, communication,” explains Mosthav. “Unless you give people a reason to pull, they are not going to. We have found that communities which do think about the purpose at the beginning, as well as the role of the purpose, seem to progress.”

Alongside this adoption of enterprise social networking, Atos developed an internal training programme focused on using different technologies to support cultural change. Over 5,000 Atos managers have completed the training programme, which they then disseminate to their employees.

The success of this can be witnessed in the 90% of Atos’s 85,000 employees actively using the social enterprise platforms to communicate with each other. This has led to a significant drop in internal mails – and increased productivity.

Employees' process cycles have been faster since email was taken out of their business procedures. Likewise, since the progress reports for the bi-weekly Change Advisory Board of the Chief Information Officers are now published on blueKiwi, the number of participants has dropped by 30% and it takes 25% less time.

This saving in human resources and time adds to Atos's overall productivity. “The process cycles are now just that much faster, which gives us real productivity,” says Mosthav.

Despite these systems addressing the email epidemic, it is ultimately a technological symptom of a much greater cultural problem. Our increasing digital connectivity has led us to the point where we struggle to disconnect from work while at home.

The methods outlined by Cooper and Marc Mosthav address the symptom of email saturation – but they also highlight a greater need, to address the cause of this cultural issue.

This was last published in June 2015

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I think this explains why many people have a hard time turning off their devices and stepping away for real vacations.  The fear of catch up on email being king.
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People need to be trained in using email (and other technologies) in effective and efficient way. The article gives some useful ideas from Dr.Cooper, like "do not CC everyone".
On the other hand, getting rid of one distraction is not enough. There should be periods of focused work when everything is turned off.
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