Escaping the Terror of Email Overload

Email overload leads to poor operational efficiency and toxic business culture. What can you do to reduce email and improve communication and collaboration?

EMAIL OVERLOAD is an urgent business problem. Business email is overused because it is simple, cheap, fast and universal. It is a poor tool for project management, a poor tool for information management and a poor tool for collaboration. It is being grievously overused and abused, and is killing your productivity. Email overload leads to confusion and obscures priorities, urgency and importance. How should you react?

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10 Reasons for Email Overload

  1. Familiarity, simplicity and immediacy: Email is simple and is ‘free at the point of use’. It is however anything but ‘free’ when you consider the amount of time workers spend wading through the quagmire of daily email.
  2. Covering your back: Email overload is often a symptom of mistrust. There are times when correspondence really does need to be in writing, but overly defensive behaviours are a significant contributor to email overload.     
  3. Failing to recognise your role in the problem and your responsibility in finding the solution: Are you in a toxic, co-dependent relationship with email? Is email overload actually part of your status? You might never admit that publicly, but if this resonates then look at how your leadership style might be contributing to the overall problem.
  4. Poor understanding of communications: Email software provides ‘out of the box’ tools which highlight poor communicators. If you begin to prioritise email for the recipient, then stop and pick up the phone. The same goes for Read Receipts.
  5. The right tools aren’t available: Overuse of the wrong tool is the not the fault of employees if appropriate tools and training are not provided. If you don’t provide Enterprise Social Networks, chat capabilities and online conferencing (like Microsoft Lync (Skype for Business) or Google Hangouts), Information Management and collaboration systems (SharePoint etc.), then expect people to revert to fitting all of this into their email workflow. If you haven’t measured the (productivity) impact of email overload and considered how to actively reduce the problem, then consider doing so as a matter of priority.
  6. Too many features in the software: If email was a ‘command line’ system, email overload would be reduced. Software ‘bells and whistles’ has led to email being used as a task management tool. Email being used as a filing cabinet, production line and workflow tool exponentially contributes to email overload and poor information management.
  7. Consumerisation of Communications – Email is conversational and increasingly informal: People are using business email in the same way they are using personal Social Media. Email is degenerating into microblogging and chat, with few ways to filter out the resultant noise.
  8. Right of Reply: Email ‘observes’ a simple law, “to get more, send more.” Email overload is self-sustaining. Email overload is caused by seemingly unbreakable chains of poor communications. The best way to reduce overload is to stop participating in it. Respond if and only if it is essential.
  9. Carbon Copy and the mushrooming distribution list: In a world of open communications, email overload is being driven by a tendency to over-communicate. The CC list is a favourite of email abusers and allows them to push unimportant information to inappropriate audiences. This is usually motivated by insecurity, a wish to share problems, or an inability to make decisions.
  10. Management by Email: Email overload confuses priorities and distorts employee perception of what is important and what is urgent but busy managers often abuse email as a means of expediency.

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Email: The Swiss Army Knife of Business

Ducheneaut and Watts identified three metaphors to describe how email is being used:

  • As a filing cabinet – people manage and access email archives as a personal knowledge system
  • As a production line – people collaborate with others to accomplish work tasks
  • As a communication genre – email is used in organisational settings to carry out group work

As outlined above this creates problems including:

  • Knowledge gets locked-up in personal archives
  • Closed communications means important contributions are missed
  • Knowledge is stored in an unstructured and unsearchable way
  • People think of email as their personal property. The same goes for ideas and content within those emails
  • Personal archives get corrupted, lost or simply destroyed when employees leave the business. Information loss is extremely wasteful and potentially commercially dangerous

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10 Tips for Solving Email Overload

  1. Understand your starting point – how bad is it? The low-fi way to do this is with surveys. Ask simple questions to quantify the volume of email circulating, the importance and usefulness of the information contained within it and the amount of time people are spending reading and processing it. A bad sign is managers and team members shaping their working day in reaction to emails. A more sophisticated way of quantifying your starting point is through automated analytics. Understand the information flows email is enabling and who are its heaviest users. As you need qualitative feedback about the usefulness of information being distributed by email, use analytics as an ‘add-on’, not a wholesale replacement.
  2. Culture, Culture, Culture –  A major cause of email abuse and email overload is cultural. For some it has become a bad habit, others need to have their eyes opened to new techniques and technologies. Business processes, practices and leadership style are probably causal in email overload, so start thinking about how these aspects need to change.
  3. Set out a vision and explain the benefits – Quantifying the starting point and the time being wasted in inefficient communications provides empirical evidence of the need for change. Defining an end-state vision and some key stepping stones to reach that vision are crucial. This will help sell the benefits of change to management and teams.
  4. Set reduction targets – Email overload needs active management. A key approach is to set email reduction targets, understand your ‘heaviest (ab)users’ and enact proactive measures to realise your outlined vision. You will need top level sponsorship, so ensure the benefits are clearly set out and tracked.
  5. Re-educate, set objectives, look for champions – To reduce email overload you will need to tackle difficult change challenges. Proactive managers and staff members who are really bought into the vision are critical to success. Use them to help drive through change and scale your initiatives.
  6. Lead by example – Stop using email as the primary channel for corporate or team communications. Have a plan to migrate as much communication as possible on to other platforms and channels. Take bold steps and demonstrate reduction in email overload from a personal perspective. Loudly proclaim your achievements (but not over email!).
  7. Strip down your Processes – Business processes often feed email overload. In most cases this is a ‘legacy design’ and processes can be changed, removing email communications. This might require some transition planning, but ‘heat map’ your key processes and look for the highest contributors to email overload and tackle them first.
  8. Tech enable your initiatives – Analytics and surveying tools help you understand your starting point and how well your email reduction initiatives are performing. Enterprise Social Networks allow you to quickly move collaboration functionality onto more appropriate platforms. Chat, video conferencing, video hangouts, wiki capabilities can easily be incorporated using Enterprise Apps, Unified Communications and Open Source technologies. There are benefits in implementing each of these, but have a strategy and engagement plan for each new collaboration or information management tool.
  9. Gamify – Gamification is a useful technique for email reduction. It helps if an Enterprise Social Network has been implemented as the level of engagement in online communities is easily measured. Create ‘tribes’ and pit one against the other – some inter-departmental competition will work wonders.
  10. Survey, feedback and implement continuous improvement – Use analytics and periodic surveying to measure results. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Be aware that you will face resistance and there is a critical tipping point that you need to reach before the change will really deliver its full potential (and become the new norm of communications culture).

The Effective Executive (Classic Peter Drucker Collection)

If email is driving your personal work agenda, take control and switch it off. Read email at set times, and encourage people to phone you to resolve important issues. Email is distracting. Every time an email alert diverts your attention, precious time is wasted in ‘task switching’. It is an enabler of ‘bad behaviour’, stifles knowledge sharing and collaboration, wastes people’s time and confuses priorities. Email overload calls for disruptive and proactive change. Will you take the challenge?

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By Steve Nimmons

Steve is a Certified European Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an Electric Circle Patron of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a Liveryman and Freeman of London and serves on numerous industry panels. He is a member of Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Chartered Institute of Journalists.

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