Email was designed to usher in the ‘paperless office’, but what we save in paper and ink, we’re losing in time. A growing body of research suggests email’s benefits are outweighed by its drawbacks. Here are some reasons why we might be better off without it:
1. Time: The average employee receives over 50 emails a day – many receive double that number. Simply reading these messages can swallow up 28 percent of their time, according to one study. Another claims that UK workers spend 32 days a year managing messages. Managers can justifiably view this as wasted time that adds no value to work.
2. Bad management: Management by email has become too common. Perfunctory exchanges take the place of personal interaction and can provide only a partial picture of what’s going on in the business. If managers use email to avoid difficult conversations, they can have the illusion of control but may be missing the bigger picture.
3. Technology: Email is no longer the most efficient way of getting data or messages from one to many, or for reaching colleagues or contacts overseas. Technology has moved on, with younger employees more likely to use social media and IM to communicate. It is out of step with today’s app-driven culture, an important consideration for companies considering a BYOD (bring your own device) policy at work.
4. Distraction: Automatically generated emails, needless acknowledgements – these may take seconds to read, but they interrupt workflow and add to a sense of overload.
5. Stress: How often do you end a long working day, only to discover a backlog of messages that need to be dealt with overnight? Seemingly endless, impossible email demands can put a strain on employees. A study from UC Irvine in California found that the human heart goes into a state of "high alert" when regularly checking emails. Test subjects regained a steadier rhythm after a five-day break from email – and realised most of their messages were unimportant. Stressful working conditions are not conducive to productivity.
6. Collaboration: There are better tools and platforms for real-time collaboration. Many are cloud-based, low cost and can be used alongside existing systems. Ironically, good inbox habits like filtering and storing messages in folders can hamper knowledge sharing.
7. Communication: According to Dr Tom Jackson of Loughborough University, poorly worded or structured messages can take time to decipher and can cost up to $16,000 per employee. Office politics played out over email create negative impressions. Bad habits can result in alienation, particularly among mobile workers, for whom it may be their only connection to the office. Brief conversations, which allow for nuances of speech, may prove a more effective way of tackling problems.
8. Prioritisation: Email opened up first thing in the morning can dictate the day. Used by so many business functions for different purposes, it can be difficult to prioritise the flood of daily messages, leaving people simply reacting to whatever comes in first. There are tools, filters and rules to help, but this sucks up time and energy. The ability to make decisions is a limited resource – it is an energy-intensive activity best conserved for important tasks.
9. Learning and development: Video-based training, wikis and other collaboration software allow individuals to access learning opportunities to fit their schedules. The time saved on email could be reallocated to targeted training sessions where colleagues can exchange valuable ideas and get to know colleagues.
10. Smarter working: Without email, employees are encouraged to think more carefully about the way they work, the communication methods they use and how best to get work done. It can galvanise people to re-design their working day, and take control of their time by using the right tools for the job. What may seem like ‘marginal gains’ will soon add up: smarter working results in more productive people and better output.
Lee Timmins is Senior Vice President of Atos Consulting