At just 21 years old (plus or minus) the email dragon has replaced the paper tiger of the pre-PC era. And beyond that, instant messaging is becoming a part of life in many organizations, while whatever comes next (brain implants?) will probably also be piloted by teens, so just watch what they're up to and you'll see the future. Meanwhile, in the here and now, email remains the reality of workplace life.
So I decided to run a simple survey on the topic of email’s impact on workplace effectiveness. The results, presented here at some length, confirm what I’ve seen in my coaching work with executives: the way email is used makes it a significant time waster.
In fact, shockingly, 63% of respondents said they spend more than 30% of their available work time writing, reading, and responding to email, while the majority (71%) of respondents said that it only “somewhat enhances,” “is neutral to,” or even “hinders,” their effectiveness. 40% of respondents said it decreases their balance between work and life outside of work.
A past executive coaching client of mine who runs a large financial services organization told me he was spending tremendous amounts of time reading and responding to email—middle of the night, planes/trains, etc. Yet even so, people I interviewed around him actually complained that he wasn’t responding quickly enough. At that point how to deal with the volume, time pressure, and uselessness of much email became job one in our work together.
Generally, my work is focused on helping clients be happier and more effective leaders. If the client hasn’t conquered this dragon, it is likely to be part of the work we do.
For this reason, and with my client’s blessing, I designed, launched, and completed a public survey entitled “Workplace Email: Timesaver or Taskmaster.” It received 156 respondents over the year or so it was open, 66% of which were from companies of greater than 100 employees, 58% male, 42% female, and the top three industry categories were Financial Services, Professional Services, and Information Technology (including software development.) Maybe a larger-scale, cross-tabulated survey would be warranted, and I have many ideas about that, but I find these responses "ring true" to my experience with clients.
And before I share the results below, I heartily thank the participants who took their valuable time to complete my survey. THANK YOU!
Email’s relevance to doing a good job: 62% of respondents said that 50% or less of the workplace email they receive is “important to doing your job well.”
Volume sent /received: 62% of respondents said they receive more than 50 emails per day, 24% said they receive over 100 per day. Volume / sent: 73% said they send less than 50 emails per day.
Effective ... or not: 82% of respondents said they themselves use email effectively as a productivity tool, while 48% said others in their organization use it ineffectively.
Reasons for sending email: There were over 1,100 responses to the question of why a leader sends a workplace email—here are the top ten responses
- Make requests of others (10%)
- Schedule meetings (10%)
- Communicate status (9%)
- Resolve an issue or problem (8%)
- Delegate tasks to others (8%)
- Update your boss (8%)
- As an alternative to a phone call (8%)
- Create a record for future reference (7%)
- Give positive feedback (5%)
- Send pre-reading or preview material for meetings (5%)
Big brother is watching: 55% of respondents think someone other than the recipient is reading at least some of their email, and another 7% think that “may be” happening.
Work/Life balance: 40% say that email decreases their balance between work and life outside of work, while 29% say it has no impact, and 28% say it increases that balance. The remainder don’t know or have no opinion.
Mode of communication: 73% said they communicate most effectively “face to face,” while others put email (14%) ahead of telephone (10%) as runners-up.
Nastygram? A whopping 89% said they “rarely” or “sometimes” send email they wished they hadn’t sent, while 11% said they “never” do that.
Device is nice: While 67% said they find the computer most convenient for reading AND responding to email the majority of the time, 13% said it depends on the circumstances, 9% prefer their mobile device for reading email but their computer for responding to it, and 8% prefer their mobile device for everything. Take note Apple, Blackberry, and Android! You’ve got your work cut out for you.
And finally, let’s make it better: Think of this as “ten tips for making email a more effective workplace tool:” Here were the top 10 responses on improving email’s effectiveness. I’ve added one coaching suggestion (that I use for my clients) for each one.
1. If others cut down on cc:ing you for no good reason (13%)
Coaching suggestion: reply to emails on which you were unnecessarily cc:ed with a note asking that the sender removes you from cc:’s on emails like this one as you are working to reduce unproductive time spent on email.
2. If the content of email messages were more succinct (13%)
Coaching suggestion: limit yourself to two paragraphs or less. If it has to be longer, you should probably have a conversation. Make sure the first line or two is the main headline and explains the need for the communication. Reply to lengthy emails with feedback to the sender to this effect.
3. Receiving less of it (10%)
Coaching suggestions: it starts with you--send less, reply less, and use voice to voice more often. Pick up the phone, find someone in the hall. Coach or provide feedback to people who are large generators of email.
4. Better capability to organize email on your computer (8%)
Coaching suggestion: Take a look at how you review and organize your email, and identify two to three things that could make it more manageable. Consider new / different workflow or process in handling email, try them out, or adapt.
5. More specific subject lines (8%)
Coaching suggestion: A subject line is a headline—and as they say in the news business, “Don’t bury the lead.” Make it concisely suggest why someone should open it.
6. Having better software to manage email on your computer (7%)
Coaching suggestion: Take a look at what, specifically, would you like software to do that it’s not doing for you. If you’re not using email management software like Outlook, Mail, Thunderbird, you may want to consider one of those programs. If you are, and you’re dissatisfied, you may want to look at plug in programs that might help you address the specific issue(s).
7. Less "FYI" email (7%)
Coaching suggestion: Consider why you are copying people on your email, or forwarding it to them. If they don’t NEED it to do a good job today, consider NOT sending it to them. If you receive email like this, my suggestion is always that you reply to it with feedback to the sender, as above.
8. More action-oriented subject lines (7%)
Coaching suggestion: many effective email-users will add a “Reply needed by Tuesday” or “Your action required” in the subject line.
9. Less spam, sales, or marketing-related email (6%)
Coaching suggestion: rather than just delete that annoying spam piece, use the unsubscribe and/or “add to junk filter” buttons.
10. More effective spam (junk) email filtering (5%)
Coaching suggestion: Research (learn about) the tools you already have on your computer, and on low cost other tools. If you have IT support, or a web host / web provider, ask for their help. We’re all in this together.
In short, it's critical to slay your email dragon by realizing you have an active role in improving your own workplace email habits, and encouraging / coaching / providing feedback to others to do the same.