Electronic mail is so easy to use that it may be open to abuse.
Electronic mail may be among the great advances of the computer age, but does it stop people getting on with their work? Yes, according to Computer Associates, one of the world's biggest software companies. 'We felt that too many people were being interrupted by the large number of messages appearing on their screens all the time,' says Jay Huff, marketing director of CA in the UK. Therefore the company decided to limit its e-mail service to certain times of the day: around 10am, lunchtime and late afternoon. Outside these periods, staff may compose messages but cannot actually send them. 'E-mail can increase bureaucracy and paperwork if you're not careful,' argues Huff. 'We do think it's a valuable tool, but it can be misused.' The trouble is that people find e-mail messages too easy to send: 'They can do it with less effort than picking up the phone or going down the corridor to see someone'. Therefore they do so without pausing to consider whether they might be interrupting the addressee. Naturally, human curiosity means that the recipient breaks off work to find out what it's about.
E-mail hours at CA are supposed to coincide with times that people might previously have spent dealing with their post. They can read it in the morning, or on getting back from lunch, just as they would with written correspondence. The reduced service has not been universally welcomed within the company however. 'Some people thought it was very restrictive,' Huff admits.
Such an innovation would certainly not go down well at Rank Xerox (UK). Les Elstein, the company's information systems manager, was 'astonished' at CA's move: 'We regard the provision of e-mail as absolutely critical to the management of the company.' Elstein doesn't accept that people are more inclined to interrupt colleagues via e-mail than on the telephone. 'People behave in just the same way with phone calls. The idea that they stop to wonder if this is a good moment to call is just not true.' Much the same view prevails at ICL, where some 20,000 staff use e-mail to communicate with each other and with customers. Paper mail has virtually been phased out, says Ninean Eadie, executive director for technology, who himself receives around 40 items of e-mail daily. 'We certainly don't visualise turning it off. We would regard such a move as Luddite. Switching it off would introduce undesirable delay, and you might not find out that a customer was experiencing difficulties.' E-mail works better than the phone, Eadie maintains, because there is no risk of the customer being unable to get through.
Non-communication can be a particular problem in international companies like ICL, whose operations span different time zones. E-mail allows staff to send a message before leaving the office in the evening with some confidence of getting a reply by the morning. A further advantage, Eadie points out, comes in communicating with non-English speakers. If you're not fluent in French or German, it can be difficult to carry on a telephone conversation. A message that appears on screen gives you time to think - and to check meanings.
Of course e-mail can be abused. The service is likely to deteriorate if it's used to send messages to all employees whenever someone wants to sell a bike or find a squash partner. Nor is it the right medium for handing out praise or blame. But a decision to switch off for long periods of the working day still looks remarkably brave - or desperate.