Push to Put Lid on Ever Expanding Inbox

Friday, April 25, 2014 - 07:50

Email, one of the world’s greatest communication tools, has morphed from servant to tyrant. By Ainsleigh Sheridan

Globally, 100 billion business emails are transacted daily. It is predicted this will rise to 132 billion by 2017. You’ve got mail – and potentially a serious problem.

That’s certainly how John Borghetti sees it. The Virgin CEO says he gets up to 500 emails a day and still has hundreds to read on a Sunday – at 3am!

However, an email counter-culture is rising in executive ranks with CEOs taming inboxes using extreme techniques, some of which are getting the click of approval from email experts.

Illawarra Yacht Club CEO Matt O’Hara made news when he slashed 25 hours a week from e-correspondence by insisting his staff focus on face-to-face or telephone contact. Internationally, the head of French IT services firm Atos, Thierry Breton, has successfully demanded a “zero email initiative” since 2011, eliminating internal email use in his firm.

These are familiar scenarios to No Email Day’s British founder Paul Lancaster. “You never hear people say, ‘I don’t get enough email and would like a few more’,” he says. “Instead, they are struggling to cope with all the emails coming in, each one another request for work.”

Lancaster, a marketer for UK business software firm Sage Ltd, spends much of his day in information exchange with SME start-ups and entrepreneurs. Frustrated by a never-ending stream of emails and feeling never quite on top of it all, “creating new, useful and important work”, Lancaster switched off his inbox for the first No Email Day on November 11, 2011.

Seth Godin’s blogs and books inspired No Email Day, particularly Poke The Box and Unleash the Ideavirus, Lancaster says. Godin, a US entrepreneur, business author and marketer, wrote the titles on the topics of – respectively – how to take the initiative in problem-solving in any aspect of life, and how to create ideas and then spread them on a large scale. No Email Day is Lancaster’s experiment in spreading the idea of eschewing email for other tools and rules.

No Email Day asks people to switch off email for a day and instead have real-life contact and super-succinct text, chat or tweet exchanges. The movement, an annual event, is “not anti-email … far from it”, Lancaster says. Email is “a vital and important part of our daily life and one of the greatest inventions known to man. However, it’s been overused, abused and hijacked by the spammers and the time wasters to the detriment of the human race”.

“It’s an ongoing battle – for everyone. Almost everyone admits they have a problem with too much email, [but it] has been around for so long … it would be impossible to eradicate it.”

Steuart Snooks is an email and productivity educator with Australian firm Solutions for Success, which hosts short courses for AIM in Victoria from its Melbourne headquarters. Snooks, who wrote the report Seven Critical Impacts of Information and Email Overload, says the consequence of email misuse is not likely to be a one-off crisis but a “dripping tap” effect on staff productivity, focus, decision-making, mental health, IQ and work/life balance.

“Most organisations do not measure and therefore do not clearly know the impact of current email practices in their organisations,” Snooks warns. “Mastery of email is a component of workplace productivity. It ranks in the top three or so of workplace productivity concerns.”

And it’s those at management level who are worst affected, he says.

“In previous generations, management level only handled as much information or level of detail as needed to make decisions and move an organisation forward,” Snooks says.

“But the ubiquitousness of email means management level is now drowning in information overload and this has a significant impact on quality and speed of decision-making, executive hours worked and stress levels.”

Could some of the nascent web-based and social media technologies now be better placed to achieve what email was originally intended for?

“Yes, there is certainly a large amount of workload that can be better handled by non-email technologies,” Snooks says. “However, no single one of them looks likely to replace email.”

Lancaster agrees social media tools are great for initial contact and inquiries, but “emails are a great way to confirm and clarify and go into more depth on a subject”. He recommends Twitter as “fast, succinct, open and transparent”, while text messages can also get a rapid response because business people nearly always have a smartphone nearby. A LinkedIn message stands out because it comes from trusted contacts, while blogs or wikis are a good way to share information.

“Their public nature forces people to be careful with wording and answers can be seen by all, which may be of benefit to them, too. I also like phone calls, their immediacy, the ebb and flow.”

Snooks’ training exercises teach how to integrate email as part of the wider workload, taking tasks that arrive via email and incorporating them with other activities that must be managed.

“The new best practice behaviours can then be enhanced by harnessing technology to minimise the reliance of self-discipline or habits,” he says, recommending changing default settings, turning off alerts, setting up filters and rules and using email drafts or templates.

This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine