It’s over 40 years since Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message. It has since become the dominant means of communication in business, but also for collaboration, writes Lee Timmins. Yet it is no longer the best tool for either of these activities and it is increasingly out of step with the habits of younger employees and clients. When Atos chairman and CEO Thierry Breton announced the organisation’s move to "zero email", it may have seemed radical. But external interest suggests it is an idea of its time.
As email has become more widespread, we have started to associate email with information overload and strain. Time-pressed managers are finding it more difficult to get work done than five years ago, with workloads increasing and becoming more complex while resources grow scarcer. Yet we are spending much of our time sifting through email messages. One study claims that UK workers spend 32 days a year managing messages. Atos's research found 300 employees sent or received some 85,000 emails in one week. While each may take only minutes to address, the constant flow and the expectation of an immediate response adds up.
Even as a messaging tool, email is imperfect. In a typical day, you might turn on email at 7.30am and leave it on in the background. By compulsively checking email, we become distracted and unable to concentrate on other work. As author Nicholas Carr notes: “What makes digital messages all the more compelling is their uncertainty. There’s always the possibility that something important is waiting for us in our inbox, which overwhelms our knowledge that most online missives are trivial.”
Even those disciplined enough to check their emails sporadically can be frustrated. At the end of a day with clients, they may face an inbox full of messages that need to be addressed before the next day. This can be alienating and exhausting, particularly if it is the only means of communication between managers and their teams.
Most messages are unimportant
Most important, a recent Atos Consulting paper, Doing more with less: the new productivity paradigm, indicates many messages are unimportant. One in four managers claim to spend more than 25% of their time writing emails that add no value to the organisation. Some 72% agree that handling email eats into time that would be better spent on other work.
At best, this is a distraction. At worst, it can result in underperformance and employee disengagement. The problem may be bad habits, but these have become widespread.
The solution? Phase out email as the main means of messaging and collaboration. Advocates of a less radical solution might argue that behaviour is the main issue. But behaviour is changing already. Studies demonstrate younger employees are less likely to use email to communicate with colleagues. Collaboration tools such as Jive or Blue Kiwi have proven far better platforms for co-working and have resulted in sharper proposals. Information that was once parked in an inbox can be more effectively shared using video, with the ultimate aim to create a "knowledge bank" of experience that can be accessed by all.
In practice, moving to zero email has meant experimenting to some extent. Focusing on messaging, collaboration and content management, it is about identifying the right tools for the task.
This goes beyond simple time management. Atos wants to create a dashboard or suite of tools configured for specific roles.
A group of early adopters are keeping diaries of their progress. Six months ago, consulting partners would be using one device. Now, they might be running several applications at once. There’s some irony in the fact that, in attempting to simplify work, we’ve moved from one to many devices and platforms. But this is an essential step in shifting ingrained habits – creating viral change and offering guidance and support, rather than simply issuing a "no email" edict from day one.
Just the first step
The move to zero email goes beyond technology. It is a major transformation programme and change in the way we work. Essentially, it addresses the fundamentals of work design and the need to redesign work to reflect the changing demands of globalisation and technology. If organisations are to sustain productivity and grow, they need to revisit the structure of work. Zero email is just the first step.
Lee Timmins is senior vice-president of Atos Consulting
This was first published in October 2012