I have come across a number of clients lately who have given up on email. For some it has been an admission of defeat – ‘one more thing I can’t stay on top of’, for others it has been a more empowering ‘I’m not going to spend an infinite amount of time on something that adds so little value’. For evidence of how little value email adds we can refer to the study by Atos consulting that concluded that staff were spending up to 20% of their time dealing with email but that only 15% of the email added any value. Atos concluded that email use had become dysfunctional and this has been reinforced for me by the number of people who tell me that they regularly get 150+ emails a day. I haven’t done an empirical study to determine at exactly what volume email becomes unmanageable but I am fairly confident in my anecdotal and subjective view that 150 is beyond it.
However, we shouldn’t underestimate organisation’s ability to persist with ineffective and futile approaches, for example, the ‘top telling the middle what to do the bottom’ approach to change management has long been proven ineffective in the modern workplace yet still seems to be the change management model of choice. Something to do with our brain preferring what is known and comfortable even when it is not effective, so email may persist for awhile yet.
I applauded the Atos goal to eliminate internal email until I heard what the technology element of their proposed solution was; greater use of SharePoint’s, social media, instant messaging and BYOD protocols 🙁 Yes this will reduce the volume of email but I am not at all convinced that it will increase effectiveness. If anything it may well increase the epidemic of interruptions that infests the modern workplace. The challenge for organisations is to simultaneously reduce email, improve communication and increase effectiveness. No mean feat and I haven’t yet come across a credible solution. Technology obviously has a part to play but much more important will be making changes to individual behaviour – after all it is us that is sending all the email – which in turn requires a change to the mental models and norms our brain defaults to. This sort of change doesn’t come about via hierarchy but rather in ‘units of one’ that are given time, space and tools to make lasting change to their perceptions, thinking and behaviour. This is what we offer people in our Flourish programmes.
So email as a communication tool is on the way out although it may well be with us forever as an archive and CYA tool but what remains unclear is what can usefully replace it.
Incidentally, the best email management tip I have come across recently, and one that might be very timely was, when taking annual leave set your Out Of Office to ‘I am on annual leave until XXX and your email has been deleted, if necessary please resend it to me upon my return’. And obviously to set your rules to delete all emails in your absence 🙂