Email just isn’t working anymore

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The fact that email is slowly strangling lots of workplaces was recognised again recently when Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and former adviser for the Government Office for Science about mental health in the workplace spoke at the recent British Psychological Society annual conference.  Sir Carey said that rampant email checking is damaging the mental wellbeing of employees, and in doing so slows them down and damages UK productivity.  This recognition that email may now be doing more harm than good is not a new one, but what still seems to be lacking are practical solutions to turn email back into an effective productivity tool.  For example in their original  study paper Atos Consulting identified internal email as a major drain on productivity and their Zero Email programme has gone some way to address this; although n the merit of, to a large extent, replacing email with alternative communication channels such as ‘enterprise social networks’ may seem somewhat questionable.

Some of the problems, and solutions, related to this email blight can be quite tactical and technical e.g. ensuring that you know how to use features such as, short-cut keys, filters, rules, MS Outlook quick steps, staying up to date with email enhancements such as the many that support the GTD methodology etc.  But the major causes of this communication and productivity log-jam tend to relate to much more challenging areas such as personal behaviour and organisation culture; and changing these tends to be neither easy nor fast.

At an individual level we know that checking email is often ‘just’ a habituated behaviour but sometimes it can also be an ‘addiction’ where the ‘crack cocaine’ of random positive rewards means we mindlessly check email at the expense of our wellbeing and effectiveness.   And at an organisational level ‘conversation-by-email’ and ‘reply-to-all’ is often seen as ‘the way we do things around here’.

So what solutions do we propose to client’s looking to address this?  Some of them include:

For organisations:

  • Clearly distinguish between internal/external and necessary/unnecessary email.
  • Capture and publish data on where internal email is coming from. Challenge people on their internal email usage and get to the root of why they are sending it.  Set targets to reduce internal email volume.
  • Set mail servers to only deliver email during working hours by default; with an opt-in for people to receive email ‘real-time’.
  • Introduce, and stick with, ‘no-internal email’ days.


For individuals

  • Refresh your email IT skills and make sure you are making best use of your mail programme’s capability.
  • Take control of when and how you check your email. Check email only at set points during the day and ideally not first thing in the morning. Turn off any audible or visual email alerts.
  • Process email in batches and aim to handle your messages only once.  To quickly decide what to do with an email use ARAFS:  Archive, Reply, Act, Forward, Save.  Use the two-minute approach.  Act immediately on messages that will require less than two minutes of your time.
  • If you are on your third ‘reply’ for the same email then it is time to pick up the phone or go for a visit.
  • Unsubscribe to all of the ‘it may possibly be of use sometime’ mailing lists that you are on, or send them to an email address other than your main work one.

This infographic offers some other useful ideas J