Skip to content

How emails damage productivity

Recently a warning was issued by Sir Cary Cooper, a British professor and formal government adviser, that obsessive email checking is hurting staff’s health and productivity. It hardly comes as a surprise that email is having this effect. How many emails do you get every week? What percentage of those need to be answered promptly? How many of those distract you from dedicated tasks you’re working on? Probably more than what is healthy.  

In a round table hosted by Project last spring, it was evident that email still rules the roost when it comes to collaborating in teams. It is not only affecting work in the office, but also disrupts work-life balance. In a research study we have made, we found that 67% of project managers still respond to emails outside of working hours. It also showed that inefficient ways of working are costing managers 20 working days a year.

A significant proportion of that time is probably spent responding to emails that could’ve been dealt with through another form of communication.

The good news is that companies are trying to reduce the use of email to tackle inefficient ways of working. Ferrari, for example has previously announced it was clamping down on email to encourage staff to talk to each other.

Although more face to face meetings can reduce the need for emails, it’s not going to solve the productivity challenge. Email isn’t the real problem here, but more so the way it is being used (and abused). It’s easy to drop someone an email to simply ask a question about how a document is progressing, or who’s working on what, etc. But these types of emails end up filling everyone’s inboxes with unnecessary items. There is a better way to keep track of projects and their progress; increasingly popular online collaboration tools. Commonly, they are optimized for productivity, allowing people to plan, work on documents, share and assign tasks and communicate – without the need of a single email.

Our suggestion to company’s facing email chaos is to find appropriate ways to train their employees in email chaos management. There are plenty of sources available for your help; from easy planning techniques to collaboration tools. Start by trying the simple ‘reply and delete’ task. Nothing beats a clean inbox. 

If your employees aren’t comfortable using the tools you have put in place, they’re likely to start using the apps and software of their choice, and if you don’t have the visibility and security policies in place, you could end up dealing with ‘Shadow IT’. The term has become commonplace in organisations and refers to IT systems and solutions that and used inside companies without their explicit approval or awareness. 

We believe that technology is an enabler in collaboration, but it shouldn’t be implemented for technology’s sake. It should serve as a solution to a problem, not a replacement for teams to talk to one another – open communication is still key. 


This blog is written and sponsored by Planview.

3 comments

Join the conversation!

Log in to post a comment, or create an account if you don't have one already.

  1. John Littlewood
    John Littlewood 25 November 2015, 03:27 PM

    Very interesting.One thing which is not addressed in the above article or comments is today's requirement for an effective audit trail. Again, I think this is a cultural problem, with people / organisations terrified of the blame associated with failure to communicate, or making incorrect decisions. I have worked in teams where e-mail is the tool used for audit trail, and as a bi-product become an effective tool for people to hide behind. It is very easy for people to transfer responsibility for a decision / lack of a decision by saying 'well I sent it to you in an e'mail'.I would be interested to hear other's opinions of how to tackle this type of culture in a large organisation, either through technology, empowerment or other means...

  2. Julian Smith
    Julian Smith 23 November 2015, 05:27 PM

    Thanks for raising this in an interesting post.In recent months, the impact of email has been raised in two particular instances:1) as mentioned, Professor Sir Cary Cooper’s keynote address to the latest meeting of the British Psychological Society, in which he suggested that overuse of email was affecting UK productivity; and2) a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology which found email overload can make you less healthy and less productive: the compulsion to respond to emails and other communication after work hours was called “telepressure.”Clearly email has become a form of communication without cost in time or money. If the culture of an organisation were to expect communication to happen only for decision, clarification or to notify a result, the traffic would diminish. As it is, much email is sent to confirm, reassure or protect. The other problem is the way people insist on trying to draft by email when very good alternatives for online collaboration now exist.So it's the purpose behind email which is the issue - the email itself is just a process.

  3. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 20 November 2015, 12:47 PM

    Emailing is often used because we are just too; busy, lazy, selfish and set in our old ways to explore alternative and more effective means of communication.My particular pet hate is when emails arrive with multiple attachments – with all the associated obvious problems of version control. How often have others wasted time trying to find the latest version or a particular document or documents? Or worse still, wasted time reading and preparing for a meeting only to find the papers have been superseded?Invariably it is so much better to make information and documents more widely available through a more structured approach to information management; ‘working out loud’ if you like - but within organisational constraints of course!That way we only need to mention, or ‘@’, documents to others where it is necessary to create awareness, or seek opinion, insight or approval.The key to solving the problems of ‘email chaos’ is to change deeply ingrained bad habits. This takes leadership and, requires those that wish to see the change, to model the behaviour that they wish to see in others!This isn’t easy but thankfully there is new generation of project manager / leaders coming along that are not so tightly wedded to email and the chaos it brings. Perhaps, this offers some hope that we will be able to get the problem cracked - eventually!