Why Atos is eliminating email

At best, email is a distraction – while at worst it can lead to a drop in performance and employee disengagement, writes Lee Timmins

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.

Information overload

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.

Compulsive checking 

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.

Zero email 

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.

Viral change

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


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Email is not the problem, and banning its use will not change this. The problem is information overload, coupled with a demand for instant responses. Changing to enterprise social networking - Facebook for business - and instant messaging will not reduce the amount of information being exchanged nor the expectation of users for fast responses. All that will happen is that the problem will move onto a new platform.

Email is not perfect, but it's not far off. It's not instant; you can - and should - take time to respond (the "urgent" flag is probably one of the worst things to have been applied to email clients). Senders should not expect instant responses; if it's urgent, use another means of communication such as the telephone. Oh, but don't expect an instant response to voicemail or SMS messages, either - there may be a very good reason why the 'phone is off or the call rejected, or the recipient may have no signal.
Certainly, collaboration tools are better than email for shared workspaces, such as where various people are working together on projects, but this does not mean that there is no place for email as well.

The alternatives are far worse than email. Instant messaging is rude, interrupting your work, expecting an instant reply and not allowing time for a considered response. With email, you shouldn't expect an immediate reply. You can also exchange a lot more information by email. In addition, Instant Messaging does not keep a record of the conversation, so you can't go back and review a couple of weeks later. For many people, working on several projects, the email record is the "aide memoire" for next time you call; for others it is evidence of approval, for example.
The "Status" or "Presence" (available, busy, etc.) on Instant Messaging is the next bug bear. This is often ignored, or can be seen as a "Big Brother" monitor of when you're at your desk. Just because my status is showing as green "available", it doesn't mean that I am free to respond instantly to your message; if you send me an email, I'll respond when I am able to do so, and you're more likely to get a considered response. Just because it's called Instant Messaging doesn't mean you'll get an immediate response.

Email has good security features. For example, you can see whether the message you have sent has gone to the right individuals and is not posted in a public forum. You can encrypt and sign content. This is not available with Social Networking. If I send you a personal message, have I sent this just to you or posted it on your wall so as to be readable by anyone?

Yes, we have too much email, but moving away from email to other systems will not change that. Doing so will simply mean that we have to open more programs; rather than just Outlook we would have to open up applictions or websites for enterprise social networking, instant messaging, blogs, intranet and so on. At least with email this is all in one place. If, rather than simply opening my email, I have to connect to multiple other programs, am I likely to do so or will I simply not see the other messages?

Email integrates well with mobile devices - SmartPhones and Tablets. This allows people to travel light, carrying only a 'phone instead of a laptop. Moving away from email could reverse this.

Banning internal email does have one benefit: it is a culture shock. For years, we have been trying to reduce the amount of email traffic through simple messages: don't "reply all", keep email exchanges short, be careful what you are forwarding with long email chains, and so on. But this message clearly hasn't been effective. For sure, use the right tools for the right jobs, reduce the amount of email and apply better email etiquette. But don't ban it.

Snail mail, anyone?

So, instead of sending an email, I'm supposed to shoot, possibly edit and upload a video? Then tag it so it can be searched & sorted? This is more efficient than email ... how?