Getting smart about email in the digital workplace

I don't know anyone who does not complain of information overload. In an enterprise setting a big part of this problem is email overload. Despite the increased adoption of newer collaboration tools the volume of email has not come down. In fact, perverse though it may seem, we now have more emails to process, as these newer tools send out ever more notifications via email.

Every day in almost every organization, countless hours which could have been otherwise better utilized are lost because employees are wading through email that frankly they do not need to read. But in terms of lost productivity the time spent on email is only the tip of the iceberg. Academic research shows that productivity losses can rise up to 20% due to distractions such as email. Employees typically only get a few minutes of distraction free time (11 minutes) but once disturbed, they take much longer (23 minutes) to return fully to the original task. Even without quantifying the exact loss and leakage happening because of ineffective email practices, intuitively, knowledge workers and their managers realize that out-of-control email needs to be tamed.

Unfortunately, there is no single silver bullet. Any solution involves a bit of personal discipline, changes in organizational norms and culture, and lastly right use of technology and tools.

Today's spam filters cancel out only spurious external e-mails, but they are not of much help in unnecessary internal mails, remaining helpless against "reply all" and "CC" habits. To handle this, managers need to emphasize that emails should be only on a need-to-know basis and discourage unnecessarily long list of recipients. In fact, you can tell a lot about a company's culture by looking at the CC lists of an email.

If continuous inflow of email messages through the day is the culprit for employee distraction and loss of productivity, enterprises can get smarter about delivering email in batches at designated times. I'd bet this alone would boost efficiency all around. There would be that much less pressure on employees to respond right away as email is received but be able to better focus on the tasks at hand.

Next is of course dealing with your own inbox. Personal email hygiene requires that you don't use reading email as a procrastination tool but instead be more purposeful. Multiple techniques exist based on your own preferences but the biggest is to set aside focused times during the day and attend to email only during those time slots.

Lastly, email, while simple and intuitive, is not ideal for all types of collaboration scenarios and communication purposes. As described in our enterprise collaboration and social software research, different tools like Instant Messaging, Chat, Microblogs, and Social Networking-style updates are all available to supplement email. Each has its uses in different contexts. Digital workplaces need to understand this communication-channel mix and enable their employees to utilize the best-suited tools in different contexts.

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