From ABC News 29th November 2011: “Employees of tech company Atos will be banned from sending emails under the company’s new “zero email” policy. CEO Thierry Breton of the French information technology company said only 10 per cent of the 200 messages employees receive per day are useful and 18 per cent is spam. That’s why he hopes the company can eradicate internal emails in 18 months, forcing the company’s 74,000 employees to communicate with each other via instant messaging and a Facebook-style interface.”
There can be no doubt: email can become a drain on employee productivity. Surely no-one would argue otherwise. Email messages are sometimes vital, useful and informative. But we all know that many of them are pure wastes of time. So, is it a good idea to turn off email completely, and introduce a set of alternative channels? Maybe, but we’d say that to really improve productivity, it’s necessary to do more than swap one channel (email) for another (IMS). If you think email is disruptive then you cannot imagine how it will feel to have your boss IMS-ing you every 30 seconds. Some consideration of how communications are used should accompany a decision about channels.
So, let’s take a deeper look at the problem. We receive many emails that aren’t relevant to us. Here are several examples of these:
1. Distribution lists that are too wide and used too often (such as ‘all sales’ or ‘all engineering’).
2. People forwarding emails that everyone else has already received.
3. Emails sent to many people because the sender is unsure of whom to ask.
4. Unnecessary inclusion on the ‘CC’ or ‘BCC’ by the sender.
5. People boasting of what they’ve done by telling everyone.
6. Invitations to events that we’re not interested in; and
7. People using internal email for personal use, like selling a car.
Several of these issues would indeed by fixed by moving to IMS, which tends to be between just 2 people rather than groups.
But there are other problems: for example, one issue is that people will use email as conversation when a call or a meeting is actually needed. These people write long screeds and demand long answers. Email is ill suited to dialogue. But similarly, IMS can tie people up who have something else they should be doing, back-and-forth-ing until a problem is resolved. It’s easier to ignore an untimely email than an intrusive IMS.
Another issue is people whose writing skills are poor, so that the recipient needs several exchanges of email (or a long IMS dialogue) just to find out what the issue is all about.
There can be deeper problems. Emails have become a substitute for work in some organisations. Staff ‘pass the buck’ to one another as tasks fly around via email rather than one person getting them done. That’s why businesses that operate in real time, like manufacturing plants, don’t tend to use email on the shop floor. Workers in these environments aren’t reading emails. They are working.
In some companies, employees become fixated on responding to messages, rather than getting serious work done. Important work needs concentration, attention and thought. Looking up at a screen in case the boss wants you might please the boss; but it doesn’t complete tasks. In fact, managers are a primary cause of this problem. They constantly interrupt staff. They reward staff for being ‘responsive’. In many businesses, responding to senior management has become more important than doing work. It will advance your career a lot faster. Workers who are head down and working are criticised for their lack of connectedness.
PAC has some recommendations that will help every business address the ‘email monster’ – or should that be ‘communications monster’ – in our midst.
1. Pay attention to productivity. Reward workers over responders. Make sure your business understands how work gets done – and who is doing it well. Don’t be fooled by staff answering emails at 21:30, they might just be standing in a bar.
2. Make sure that people know what they are supposed to do. Trained, competent people with solid business processes and clear rules can work without constantly bothering one another.
3. Make your meetings productive and ensure that people have clear tasks at the end. Be clear about who is doing what and explain that tasks are not to be swapped around.
4. Train managers to stop fire fighting by asking staff constant questions. If managers need information, the business process should deliver it. Stopping staff from working to make managerial reports is bad for business and creates email traffic. Figure out a comprehensive management information system then put it in place and stick to it. Avoid ad hoc information. It’s usually wrong anyway.
5. Help remote workers. If staff work remotely then they need training, clearly defined processes and regular formal contacts such as performance management reviews. They must be working to well-defined objectives. This will prevent a barrage of requests for help, advice and data.
6. Use knowledge management effectively. Put what staff need to know on an easy to use intranet site. Structure information well. Keep it up to date. Build excellent user guides for systems, applications and processes, so that staff’s reliance on each others as teachers (a good idea, in its place), is reduced.
7. Become a learning environment. Make staff expert in what they do. That way they’ll be working not mailing. And if they do need to mail, ensure that they know how to be brief, precise and to the point. Short sentences are best. Expect people to be clear about what they want, why they want it and when.
8. Where email is needed, have a policy on use of ‘CC’. Instruct staff not to use distribution lists – and include managers in this. Restrict access to big distribution lists. Tell staff that one person will be responsible for a certain topic and not to forward emails from them because colleagues will have already seen it.
Now we’ve written this down it looks like a recipe for a more effective business. Perhaps we should conclude that email is not a problem per se. It’s more often a symptom of a deeper malaise. So our advice to executives who want to do something about email is this: look beyond the channel at the communications themselves and ask yourself ‘how can we get better at managing productivity?’ Then figure out how to talk to one another.
Post by John Leigh