Companies fight Back Against Avalanche of Email

Almost a year ago, Jon Coleman set an ambitious and anachronistic goal for his department of 300 people. He asked his staff to reduce their email volume by 25 per cent over the course of 12 months. A vice-president with the pharma giant Pfizer Inc., Coleman felt that email had gotten out of control.

Companies fight Back Against Avalanche of Email

Almost a year ago, Jon Coleman set an ambitious and anachronistic goal for his department of 300 people. He asked his staff to reduce their email volume by 25 per cent over the course of 12 months. A vice-president with the pharma giant Pfizer Inc., Coleman felt that email had gotten out of control. "Many people judge their productivity based on how many emails they've responded to," he says. "That's a ridiculous measure."

Coleman isn't alone in his view. Originally billed as a time saver for office workers, email has emerged as the scourge of the modern workplace. With that upbeat dling - the tonal equivalent of a happy face - announcing the arrival of every message, email has upped stress levels in cubicles around the world. It demands ever-increasing hours. It's provided a bully pulpit for the overzealous and a hiding place for the anti-social. It can even be credited with introducing new forms of rudeness, as emailers thumb messages below the table on wireless handheld devices during meetings or conferences or, yes, dinner.

Now the backlash is growing. "We've gotten to the point where people stay in their offices and send an email rather than get up out of their chair to cross the hall," says Coleman. And so, largely at the urging of an employee committee on office wellness, he's leading a charge to rein in the habit. He brought in email trainers to provide tips on efficient email use. He keeps a file of inappropriate emails, "not to pick on anyone," he says, but to provide examples of what not to do. In July, his group introduced Freedom Six to Six, a ban on email messages between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and on weekends. "The spirit of the whole idea is to enable employees to disconnect when they go home, so they are all the more productive when they get back to work," he explains.

Coleman's instincts about email are backed up by research. A survey conducted by TNS Research for Hewlett Packard found that two out of three office workers check email after office hours and when on holiday. A recent Reuters survey of 1,300 business people around the world revealed that executives are suffering from an overload of information, much of it delivered by email. Two-thirds said that the stress had damaged their personal relationships, increased tension with colleagues, and contributed to a decline in job satisfaction. Email has become so indispensible that the idea of a system failure makes IT managers quake. A survey conducted for Veritas Software Corp., a U.S. storage software provider, found that one-third of IT managers would see an email collapse at their company on par with a car wreck or a divorce, in terms of stress levels.

The new technology has even spawned an addiction. In what's considered a first, a 19-year-old in Scotland was referred to counselling last year after his employer discovered he was sending up to 300 messages a day - 8,000 over three months - most of them to his girlfriend. (It seems she didn't reciprocate - the two are no longer together.) After the man mistakenly sent a message intended for the girlfriend to an office colleague, he quit his job rather than face disciplinary action. "He was suffering from severe anxiety when he wasn't getting any reply, which was causing him to text and email even more," Philip Irvine, project leader of Renfrewshire Council on Alcohol Trust, where the man is being treated, told the Guardian Weekly. "This patient has all the hallmarks of any classic addict, where mental health problems such as depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties occur as a result of the addiction." The man, who wasn't identified by name, told the BBC there was something comforting about receiving messages. "It's like a game of ping-pong," he said, "as you send one and then get one back."

The constant flow of email can feed emotional dependence and narcissism. "We are seduced by the idea that our importance is linked to how busy we are - which is rubbish," says Ann Searles, a Montreal-based consultant with the Institute for Business Technology. Searles's client list includes heavyweights such as Cirque du Soleil and Bombardier. "We coach people every day on how to manage the double-edged sword of email," she says. One client called Searles after discovering 10,000 messages in an employee's inbox, 8,000 of them unanswered. Searles's client sought her advice. But before Searles could connect with the worker, he quit. "When someone is drowning, or close to burning out, they are likely to bite the hand that comes to help," Searles says. "They see it as a threat."

The other problem is the loss of productivity from all the interruptions. Email traffic around the world clocks in at 141 billion messages a day, up from 5.1 billion five years ago, according to the Radicati Group, a technology and market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. The typical business worker is interrupted six to eight times a day, leading one researcher to conclude that email consumes about 28 per cent of a knowledge worker's day, or 28 billion hours per year in the United States. At an average cost of $21 an hour, the cost to U.S. business is $588 billion. "Only recently have we started to look at the dark side of email," says Ashish Gupta, a visiting assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who studied group interaction within an email environment for his Ph.D. dissertation. "There are so many problems cropping up due to email use. How frequent are the interruptions? How much time is wasted when an email comes in and disrupts a user? It's much more than most people think."

"It's a major killer for executives," says Searles. "Leaders get battered to death by email." The "cc" button is part of the problem, as employees copy their bosses on low-priority messages, also known as CYA (Cover Your Ass) emailing. When Searles first started consulting, about 10 years ago, she advised clients to check email first thing in the morning. Now, as part of an email-management strategy, she tells executives to focus on something strategically important for the first hour of their day - and to keep their email turned off.

It's not so much the interruption itself that takes up time, but rather the delay between handling the interruption and getting back to where you were. Especially in an era of multiple windows on computer screens, people often forget what they were doing. Mary Czerwinski, a computer scientist at Microsoft who studies how computers affect human behaviour, says knowledge workers constantly flit from one project to another like bees in a rose garden. After dealing with an interruption, workers jump to a new project about 40 per cent of the time, rather than return to the original task. On average, it takes 25 minutes to hop through all the subsequent interruptions, and finally return to what you were doing in the first place. All because of one email.

Czerwinski's research isn't pure academics. It will eventually feed design ideas for new computers. In experiments with oversized 42-inch screens, for instance, volunteer subjects found it easier to organize their various windows when they could see them all displayed on a large surface. Office workers already do this in an ad hoc sort of way - witness the halo of Post-It notes around many a monitor. A bigger screen, of course, won't eliminate email; but it might help people use it in smarter ways.

That would be important, as email may currently be making us stupid. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College, London University, monitored office workers and found that as they juggled email interruptions with the rest of their work, their IQ fell by a "shocking" 10 points - the equivalent damage of losing a night's sleep, or more than double the four-point mean drop found in pot smokers. The onslaught of messages left them more befuddled and slow. "We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker's performance by reducing their mental sharpness," Wilson reports. "This is a very real and widespread phenomenon."

But it's wrong to blame email for all our office woes, says Richard Smith, a professor of communication at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University. It's really up to users to set their own limits on the technology. "They have a choice," Smith points out. People can turn off the instant notification of new messages and check messages less frequently, he says. Email is still a new technology, he adds, and we should be cautious about making pronouncements on its social impact. We are still at a stage in which people misuse email, for instance, by typing in capital letters, the print equivalent of shrieking, or sending emails to unintended recipients. "Most of these are the kind of thing that you could expect from someone who is just learning how to use something," he says. "As more people learn, the mistakes and problems will diminish."

Pfizer's Coleman agrees the advantages of email outweigh its irritants. "Blaming RIM for email overload is like blaming BMW for speeding," he says. But he insists that a cultural shift has to take place, to keep workers from being swamped by incessant messages. "Here's a tool that's all about speeding up communication, but does exactly the opposite when used in the wrong way," he points out. "If we want to be more innovative in launching new products or competing with our competitors, I have to make sure my employees are spending as little time as possible focused on email, and as much time as possible innovating new products. By reducing the volume of email in our organization, we allow people to focus on business building and not on paper shuffling." Coleman won't know how successful his campaign has been until the spring, when he'll receive data on email usage for his group. But already, his own inbox is lighter, he says, and demands less of his time. Which means more time for more substantial work - what email was supposed to liberate office workers to do in the first place.

Maclean's January 30, 2006