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Retailer's e-mail ban highlights the dangers of lost productivity

Daniel Thomas
The decision by high-street retailer Phones 4u to ban the use of internal e-mail has highlighted the increasing productivity losses being faced by UK businesses as a result of e-mail overload.

The mobile phone retailer last week revealed it had become the first UK company to ban the use of internal e-mail across its entire business. It said the move would save each employee three hours a day and be worth £1m a month to the company.

Phones 4U, which previously had 13,000 internal e-mails going through its systems every week, said the move had been made in response to the "paralysing effect" e-mail overuse can have on working practices.

Its actions reflect increasing concern among IT directors that storage costs are becoming unmanageable. Storage currently accounts for about 12% of datacentre costs which will more than double over the next three years to 26%, according to analyst firm Gartner.

Phones 4u said maintaining individual e-mail accounts was taking too much of the IT department's time. The company head office and its stores now communicate by telephone and the company intranet, which is used for ordering equipment and services.

Neil Barton, director of global consulting at benchmarking specialist Compass, said, "A company with 15Tbytes of user data paying £2 per gigabyte per month will be spending £60,000 a month on storage."

The increasing volume of e-mail also has legal implications for companies. For example, some firms have been forced to pay out compensation as a result of libellous e-mails originating from corporate systems.

In April 2001, ex Schroder Securities employee Julie Bower was awarded almost £1,400,000, after an employment tribunal ruled that she was forced to resign as a result of sex discrimination. A number of internal e-mails were produced as evidence that helped to show that Schroder was guilty.

Phones 4u will be able to police personal e-mail use more easily as a result of the internal ban, said Stephen Mason, IT barrister at St Paul's Chambers. Policing personal e-mail use is a real problem because human rights legislation gives staff the right of privacy at work, he said.

Phones 4u's move, which follows similar, smaller-scale e-mail bans by Nestle Rowntree and Liverpool City Council, has already shown positive results, said Jenna Jensen, marketing manager at the company.

"It has really helped increase our operational efficiency - store workers are no longer distracted by e-mails," she said. "It also ensures people take responsibility for their actions. These days, e-mail tends to be used less for genuine communication and more as a tool for back-covering and buck-passing."

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