On Business: Electronic hell

Email has come to dominate our lives - choking our inboxes and demanding instant attention, liberating it's not.

by Christopher Grey
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Remember when we first started using email? It seemed wonderful to be able to communicate so quickly, cheaply and easily with colleagues all over the world, and to be able to deal with correspondence where and when we liked. And at first it seemed a benefit. The volume of messages wasn't that great, and it existed alongside existing means of communication - the phone, the letter and the fax. How different things seem only a few years later. 'Doing my email' is a phrase with as gloomy a resonance as 'doing my tax return', except that the former takes place every day and, often, all day. Far from the liberating Martini of any time, any place, anywhere, email is more a three-pack nicotine habit as we addictively check, respond and check again. What's gone wrong?

Let's leave aside the ubiquity of spam, as that can be reasonably effectively filtered. No, the problem is the way in which we use email: the endlessly repeated reminders for events; the constant requests for information; the increasingly large attached files; the tendency to copy in anyone and everyone. We use email for tasks for which it is inherently unsuited - setting up meetings between large numbers of people - or for which it is actually detrimental - such as conducting arguments, which are all too easily exacerbated by the hasty 'flame mail'.

Email can, for many purposes, be a useful tool, but the practices that we have developed around it have become counter-productive. We write long emails that are ignored because they overload the recipient, and short emails that generate queries because they lack detail and context. We often confuse emailing with communication, sometimes as a political tactic, as when we cover our backs by saying 'but I emailed you about this'; and we also confuse sending an email with taking action, when we shuffle off a difficult problem by forwarding an email to someone else.

The malign consequence of this is not simply the overflowing inbox, although with senior managers now typically receiving hundreds of emails a day, that is certainly a problem. It is also that an expectation has developed that emails will call forth an instant response. I recently received an email sent on Saturday demanding a complicated action by noon on Monday. That kind of thing isn't uncommon and reflects an assumption that we are all perpetually online. And this comes at a time when companies are trying to recalibrate work-life balance. It leads to a Sisyphean situation where, in principle, many managers could spend each working day dealing with email and nothing else. But since we normally don't do so, we face build-ups of email, which often means we end up responding more slowly to urgent requests than we should.

The heart of the problem is that email is too easy and too cheap to use. If we had to go to the effort of writing a letter or making a phone call, then we simply wouldn't bother with a good many of the messages - and we would be none the worse off. How often do we come back from holiday to see an email that we would have responded to had we been around, but which two weeks later has become irrelevant? Like motorways, the very existence of the facility generates the traffic to use it. I'm not suggesting the introduction of an electronic congestion charge, just more restraint and thought.

There are many simple things we can do or not do to improve email communication for all parties. An email isn't a text message, so explain the context, especially when writing as part of a long interchange of emails, or forwarding a query. But try to avoid writing too much: it isn't an essay, so confine your message to the essentials. Emails should not be used for urgent messages. If you need to communicate with somebody urgently, pick up the phone - you can't expect people to read messages instantaneously. Similarly, don't chase people for a response. If you need one in a certain timescale, then name it in your message and only chase after that.

Of course, you should never forward material that might embarrass the original sender - check the chain before you press 'send'. A good email will be sent only to the people who need to read it, so limit the names in the 'cc' box to vital recipients. To ensure clarity, give a clear subject line and identify the actions, facts and decisions that recipients need to take, naming each specific task if it is a group email. Forwarded messages should be edited so that they contain only what is relevant to the next recipient - and wait before sending a reply if you are angry or tired.

The golden rule is always to look at an email from the point of view of the person receiving it, not from the point of view of the sender. I could continue, but I have to check my email.

- Christopher Grey is professor of organisational behaviour at Warwick Business School and visiting senior research associate at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

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