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Is It Time to Ban Emails Because They Reduce Productivity?

Internal emails reduce productivity

Not a day goes by when I'm working with organizations about how to improve communication and relationships that a complaint about emails comes up as a constant frustration and obstacle to productivity.

One company has decided to take a bold step to do something about the problem. Theirry Breton, CEO of Atos, Europe's largest IT company, plans to put a "zero" email policy in place by 2013.  Breton argues that only 10% of the 200 electronic messages his more than 74,000 employees around the globe receive each day turn out to be useful. "The email is no longer the appropriate communication tool," says Breton, "It's time to think differently." Instead, Breton wants Atos employees to use chat-type of electronic communication similar to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. In a similar move, Volkswagen Company in Germany has decided to stop sending emails to certain employees after work hours.

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How serious a problem is email? Studies such as that by Thomas Jackson and his colleagues, published in the papers of the Conference of Empirical Assessment, show that it can take over a minute for a person to focus their attention on the task at hand after they've been alerted to a new email. If the average person gets 100 emails a day, that's 90 minutes a day wasted by having to refocus on the work at hand.

Jonathan Spira, author of Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization, contends that information overload costs the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010; that reading and processing just 100 emails a day can occupy over 50% of a knowledge worker's day, because it takes 5 minutes for the brain to get back on track after a 30 second interruption.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, and writing in the New York Times, argues that email was in some ways a Godsend, because it relieved us from the expensive and increasing volume of telephone calls. However, he argues, email "removed the cost, both monetary and social from personal communication."

Studies such as that by James Katz, the director for the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University, cited the fact that the younger generation doesn't use email to communicate, preferring social media platforms, and texting, because the communication is immediate and much more informal.

David Allen, a consultant and author of Getting Things Done, believes it is not possible to effectively ban emails. He claims that the problems associated with emails have more to do with a lack of focus in organizations on clear communication.

Amy Gallo, writing in the Harvard Business Review, points out that while banning all emails may not be possible, steps toward gaining control over excessive and unproductive emails and taking email sabbaticals may be positive steps organizations can take.

One thing is certain, the volume of emails, and reliance on them as the preferred form of communication in organizations is becoming more acute and dysfunctional, and information overload is now the number one problem in organizations.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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