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Richard MacKinnon

The Future Work Centre

Insight Director

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The email conundrum: what can organisations do?

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In 2015, nearly 2,000 UK employees took part in research into email habits conducted by the Future Research Centre. We were interested in exploring the role email plays in employees’ experience of work and how much it helps or hinders us.

Our findings are set out in the ‘You’ve got mail!’ white paper, which is freely available on our website.

Recent media discussion about how we deal with our email, has indicated that we’ve hit a nerve and flagged up an issue that we believe both individuals and organisations should take more seriously.

That is, how do we get the best out of email without letting it dominate our lives.

Some context

In our review of the scientific literature, which we used to design our research questionnaire, we saw some clear themes emerging.

Email has moved far beyond the scope of what it was originally intended for. More people are using email than ever before and it’s taking up a sizeable chunk of many employees’ days.

We’re also accessing our emails via more channels, such as smartphones and tablet devices. No longer chained to our desktop computers, we’re free to send and receive email wherever we are, at any time of the day.

Whilst this has definite advantages for flexible working and staying in touch, it also has its disadvantages when it comes to focusing on priorities and avoiding distractions.

The research literature revealed to us a kind of ‘double-edged sword’ when it comes to email.

  • On the one hand, data shows that people appreciate the flexibility of email, its instantaneous nature and the opportunity to read and compose emails at their convenience.
  • On the other hand, email can be intrusive, a distraction from important tasks and a source of stress.

Arbitrary cut-off times for email use don’t really seem to address the underlying issues with email.

What we found

Having surveyed almost 2,000 UK employees, we found that email is definitely a double-edged sword. In fact, those email users who rated the tool as most helpful and flexible also reported the highest levels of email-related pressure.

And while there is a statistical relationship between the volume of emails we receive and our feelings of email pressure, there is a much stronger statistical relationship between our email habits and email pressure.

For example, survey respondents who leave their email application on all day reported significantly higher levels of email pressure than those who selectively turn it on and off.

Similarly, those who checked email either very early in the morning or very late at night also reported significantly higher levels of pressure.

As did users who relied on ‘push’ email that arrives automatically in their inbox. So, it seems our email habits play a part in the pressure we experience when it comes to email.

There’s no one-size fits all solution

Organisations have, over the last few years, attempted to tame the email “beast” by introducing company-wide rules regarding email access. Examples have included cut-off times for email and in some cases, actually turning off access to the email server in the evening.

While well-intentioned, these initiatives have inevitably had winners and losers.

And the fact that working parents find it useful to dip into email in the evening, after spending time together as a family, means that they are among the losers.

Arbitrary cut-off times for email use don’t really seem to address the underlying issues with email.

Our research indicated that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to email.

For a start, our data shows that personality plays a role in how employees respond to email – and personality represents just one strand of workplace diversity.

We also saw both negative and positive impacts on work-life balance outcomes (e.g. work-life negatively spilling over into home life, family difficulties spilling over into the office) among those employees who had to work with colleagues and clients in different time-zones.

And managers reported significantly higher levels of email pressure than their non-manager colleagues.

So what can organisations do?

We don’t see email as an insurmountable problem, though it’s admittedly a complex one. And in part, we believe it’s rooted in this rather unusual question: in your organisation, who is responsible for the effective use of email? IT? Health and Safety? HR?

Quick fixes won’t instantly turn email into the productivity tool it should be after decades of misuse. We advocate viewing the email conundrum from a ‘systems’ perspective. There are multiple layers in each system, starting with the individual (biological and psychological), the interpersonal, the organisational and the socio-economic.

For organisations to address email use, they should look at it from each of these complimentary perspectives and consider what’s working (and not) at each level and what could be done (and by whom!) at each level.

Quick fixes won’t instantly turn email into the productivity tool it should be after decades of misuse.

For example, establishing organisational etiquette around the appropriate use of email can have an impact at the organisational level (email culture), but also interpersonal, if it reduces email incivility and ambiguity. It may also reduce email volumes if employees understand they should match the message to the medium.

Training employees in effective and healthy email use could impact them at both the biological (less sleep disturbance) and psychological (less email pressure) levels, while also improving interpersonal communication. Efficiencies could be felt at the organisational level. This training and embedding of email standards could be built into employee on-boarding and potentially be reflected in a communication or technology-related competency.

Establishing organisational etiquette around the appropriate use of email can have an impact at the organisational level

However, the starting point to all of this is to quantify the problem. While it’s not inevitable that your organisation is experiencing an email problem, it’s best to investigate how it’s being used, what is working well and how it’s potentially contributing to inefficiencies, conflict and stress.

This will clarify your unique challenges, reducing the temptation to jump on a productivity fad or bandwagon and hope for the best.

Our email white-paper “You’ve got mail!” is freely available via our website and if you’d like to discuss how we can clarify and address your email challenges, we can be contacted at [email protected].

Finally, we’re running a very short follow-up study to better understand how organisations think about email. Complete the survey: https://fwc-email-followup.questionpro.com/  

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Richard MacKinnon

Insight Director

Read more from Richard MacKinnon
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