About a year or so ago I wrote a blog about email, inspired by a string of conversations I'd had with clients and colleagues, who described the tool as 'overloading their time'. In mainstream publications like the New York Times, email is likened to a zombie apocalypse "you keep killing them, but they keep on coming". Despite a world of work which is full of devices/apps/tools/models that are designed to help manage our time better - something clearly isn't working.
What is the impact of email on our work?
In 2012, the University of California Irvine commissioned a piece of research on the effects of an absence of email. Noticing that a lot of email studies are carried out on the effects of having email, they inverted their approach, cutting-off email usage for a week, and examined the effects on a group of workers.
Their findings after just a five-day period have wide implications for our lives at work.
Without email, workers focussed longer on their tasks, multi-tasked less (see my previous post on the adverse effects of multitasking), and had lower levels of stress. Moreover, the participants of the study reported that they enjoyed their social life at work with their colleagues more when email was cut off. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that the participants' colleagues (who were still using email) did not report any dip in their perceived satisfaction, productivity and stress levels.
How about emails that are sent/received after hours? Connected devices and the accompanying culture of 'always on' has made after-hours communication ubiquitous in many organisations.
A 2015 study in the Academy of Management found that people who receive emails during 'non work' time are more likely to get angry with the sender (or at their boss in the inference that they feel they should be checking/replying). This negative effect on emotions was even there if the message contained 'no rush' etc.
German vehicle maker Daimler has taken an innovative approach to holiday email. Not only do they restrict access to emails whilst employees are on holiday, but if you do email someone at Daimler while they're on holiday, you'll get a message like this:
The auto-delete policy (which is optional), follows a piece of government-funded research on work-life balance, carried out with psychologists from the University of Heidelberg. The company now trains managers to set a good work/life example, and encourages them to set aside time when no meetings can be scheduled.
It's an interesting approach, which I'm sure many would be envious of. But does making email a type of communication that only applies when the recipient is there to receive it attempt to redefine email as something different (instant messaging)? Perhaps, this is what email is now?
Reclaiming email - 3 top tips
1) Realise the power of NRN.
NRN, or 'no reply needed', is a great little tool. Including this in your subject line alleviates any undue pressure on the recipient to write a reply (even if it's just a simple thank you).
2) Make your expectations clear.
Communicate in the email if you're OK not receiving a reply right away. Equally, if you're the sort of person that is fine checking emails at 2am (for whatever reason)- make sure your team know that that is not automatically expected of them.
3) Avoid email becoming a competitive environment.
"Hey, are you going to comment on this?"
There's a popular tendency to assume that when we clear out our email inboxes, it means that we've had a productive day. I'd argue it means that we've had a reactive day, when time reacting to incoming messages and sending them back across the email tennis court might have been better applied elsewhere.
Do you have any stories to share or top tips for reclaiming control of your inbox? Feel free to post them in the comments below.