Banning internal email -- is it a stupid idea, or a necessary thing to do?
In late 2011, the IT services firm Atos and its CEO Thierry Breto announced that they planned to ban internal email within two years, calling the volume of internal emails "unsustainable."
The announcement created a lot of reactions and was met with quite a lot of skepticism. I am sure quite a few people got a good laugh from it. Why ban email? Isn’t that a bit too radical, almost crazy? That’s typical French! Working without email… woah-haha!
Multiple studies indicate that the average corporate employee spends around 25-30 percent of their workday on email related tasks. By comparison we spend 14 percent of our time, or just 6.4 hours per week, on "communicating and collaborating internally."
It wouldn’t be an issue if we were getting work done during all that time, but fact is that a large portion of that time is spent simply on managing -- organizing, archiving, deleting -- the emails that we receive. In addition, a large part of the emails we receive have nothing to do with work.
According to a study by Mimecast from 2012, around 7 percent of the emails we receive at work is spam or junk mail, and another 11 percent is personal or non-work-related. 63 percent of the emails are used for employee-to-employee communication.
Information or Distraction
Spending 25 to 30 percent of our workday on email-related tasks perhaps wouldn’t be such a big problem if you did it all in one chunk, say during the first 2.5 hours of your workday. Although you may be an exception, that’s not how most people manage their emails. That’s not how email works.
You get an email when the sender decides to send it to you, whether you want it or not, and whether it suits your work to read it or not. With email, anyone who has access to your email address can point and shoot whatever message they want at you. Potentially anything can end up in your inbox. Ubiquitous access to the most versatile communication tool makes it very easy to bombard people with information.
And this bombardment goes on, continuously interrupting you from completing the task at hand. For example, a study by Priority Management found that the average manager typically get’s interrupted every eight minutes. After each interruption it takes some time to return to the task that was interrupted, especially when it comes to serious mental tasks, such as programming or writing.
When you have been interrupted you typically wander off to reply to other messages or browse the web. It is likely that you spend about two hours per day on being interrupted and trying to refocus (pdf). That doesn’t leave much time over for being productive, does it?
From One to One to Reply All
So why have we arrived at this situation? It was destined to happen. When features such as "Reply all" and email lists were introduced in corporate email systems, the software engineers who designed the first corporate email systems knew what it would lead to.
They were well aware that email wasn't at all suitable for many-to-many communication; it would create a tsunami of information, causing information overload among information workers, and create oceans of duplicated information that would need to be managed. That's why they considered leaving features such as email lists out, but at some point came a manager to tell them "I want to inform all these people” and, ta-da, email lists were introduced. Reply all as well. Looking back, it was like opening Pandora’s box.
Bear in mind that at that time period, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, work wasn’t at all as collaborative or geographically distributed as today. The type of communication that took place between managers and employees was mostly one-way, so not that much email transformed into many-to-many conversations.
In other words, the amount and complexity of many-to-many conversations was very limited compared to today when there’s so much communication happening between employees across time and space.
Over the years, given its convenient, ubiquitous and freeform nature, email has developed some kind of monopoly over employee-to-employee communication. As a consequence, our brains are now wired for email. It is perfectly natural for us to use email for many-to-many conversations and for coordinating highly collaborative tasks. The fact that email is, by design, especially ill suited for this doesn’t stop us. Most don’t even reflect upon the reason why they feel overloaded with information and stressed out at work.
Personally, I don't hate email. I definitely don’t want to kill email. I love its freeform and ubiquitous nature, and for personal conversations it's a great tool. As I don't have a binary view of the world, I believe multiple technologies can and should coexist and be used side-by-side, although they should be seamlessly integrated.
What I truly hate, however, is waste. When we use email for many-to-many conversations and for exchanging business information that gets locked in our personal inboxes, it creates waste at a magnitude no individual or organization that cares about productivity should accept.
The exploding use of email for many-to-many communication is the main reason why email has developed into the biggest productivity drain for knowledge workers today. It is a problem that deserves to be taken seriously. We shouldn’t laugh at the idea of banning internal email. Given the situation we have created, doing something radical about how email is used for employee-to-employee communication is the only sane thing to do.
Image courtesy of nmedia (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Stay tuned for Oscar's next piece, when he will suggest methods to kick the internal email habit. In the mean time, read his The Digital Workplace: The Need for Good Practice in a Complex Work Environment