Information overload: too much of a good thing?

With email and mobile phones, we are now more accessible to our colleagues and the outside world than ever before

With email and mobile phones, we are now more accessible to our colleagues and the outside world than ever before

Ten years ago, there were three methods of contact with the office. People would phone up, they could fax or write. A decade on we have email at work, email at home, email on our mobiles, emailed form responses from our websites, faxes, voicemail, letters, pages, telephone calls, mobile phone calls, SMS messaging. It seems we are communicating more and more, but who is actually benefitting and are we actually getting any work done?

Teleworking and changes in work practices (flexi-time and alternative working arrangements) have forced colleagues to use communication methods that were unnecessary 10 years ago. Changing work practices alter the make-up of the average workplace, and the influx of women professionals has arguably increased the demand for flexible, easy communications methods.

Email and other messaging services have effectively dismantled barriers between executives and their underlings. It's harder to consider someone unapproachable if they are only as far away as their email address. In the past, workers "knew their place" and would not have attempted to have any significant personal contact with their manager. Naturally, email etiquette and the ramifications of an electronic faux pas need to be observed.

In the world of the Web, where almost everyone uses first names and direct lines, the number of people trying to get their message across can swamp even the most efficient worker.

Why we need to acknowledge the problem

Information overload can lead indirectly to absenteeism and staff turnover; all symptoms of staff feeling unable to progress. They feel they can't get any work done because of all the admin and this can turn into a vicious cycle of complaining to the middle manager (or worse sending on the offending information and complaining). A feeling of powerlessness and a sense of being undervalued will send the most diligent employee to the job search pages.

The problem

The problem is in too much information flowing to one person. If it's a company-wide problem, the easiest solution would appear to be to employ more staff to cope with it. However, this depends on whether the problem lies with the volume, or in the way information is handled. More efficient time management and delegation is an inexpensive way of coping with the problem.

In order to ascertain whether you have a problem, it might be worth noting the time it takes to deal with your incoming messages over a month. If it's taking over 50% of your time, you aren't working efficiently and you are likely to feel dissatisfied with your performance. If this isn't tackled, then you will start to get frustrated, or so blasé that you will not perform well. This effects the way you react to your colleagues and starts a vicious circle of unproductivity.

Sharing the load

The first and easiest way to share the information load is to set up methods to deal with high information flow. Firstly, set up a group email address, that at least three people have access to. The reasons for this are threefold. If one person is ill or cannot get to their email, there won't be a huge backlog; Potential problems are spotted, e.g. if one particular employee is sending a very high number of messages. Furthermore, if the same query occurs several times, it may need addressing on a global company level. Finally, while sharing the responsibility for acting on messages, it also lets the sender know that they are sending it to a group of people, so they are less likely to use it for idle gossip or speculation.

Secondly, you must prioritise information as it comes in. All telephone calls can be directed to voicemail, or give out your direct number to only a chosen few. Encourage people to send documents in the body of an email rather than fax them - it'll save time and resources. Most importantly, you can set up a fax@companyname.com address, which can then forward them to specific folders saving you from checking the fax machine every 10 minutes.

It's a good idea for company policy to forbid marking messages as urgent unless they need resolving within the hour. Some users flag all their messages as urgent and in need of follow up. This must be discouraged as there's nothing worse than breaking from your spreadsheet to open an "urgent" message describing the company's cricket team match last Thursday.

You can use most email programs to filter messages. Outlook allows you to make messages different colours or move them to folders relevant to the subject or the person who sent it. Personal Information Managers, such as ACT! work well in this respect as they can flag messages with certain content and prompt you to respond (or even respond automatically).

More importantly, ensure that employees know how much email is too much email. If you are in a service profession that allows customers to email you, set up response times and if they prove unviable, let them know. There's nothing wrong with using the out-of-office wizard to let people know that it will take you a few days to get back to them, as long as you do exactly that.

See that you make provision for newsletters and essential business information. For some of us, receiving e-bulletins and newsletters helps us keep track on market developments. If they come to us by email, why not create a specific alias for this sort of information. This means that you can allow multiple access to the account to share the information, and also cut down the flow of information into the office.

Cut the spam, cut the mustard

Spam hardly ever helps your business, so employ tools to stop it clogging up your inbox. You can use the filters that come with your software, or use a package like Mimesweeper that will look at your email at the point of entry to the company and pick out and eliminate the spam from it.

From your own staff, identify what constitutes "appropriate use" of email and other communications systems. Read my guide in solutions for some ideas of what to include. One of the major problems is that people assume just because they can pass on very small snippets of information to their colleagues quickly by email, that they should pass them on and that they will be interested.

The benefits of handling information more efficiently

There are several benefits to handling information more efficiently, not least the amount of time you will save. An employee who is given responsibility for handling information (or any other responsibility for that matter) is forced to be more responsible.

Is there really any point in the office manager responding to emails from potential employees simply because they are the contact point on the website? If he or she has to forward it to HR anyway, why not let them respond? A slew of similar requests can be met with a standard reply and a member of staff can be charged with the task of seeing to it.

You need to review the problem of information overload on a regular basis, at least once every three months. Remember that if the managers don't handle information overload effectively, they will end up with no staff to manage.

Rachel Hodgkins

This was last published in October 1999

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