Is email the real killer of productivity?

Will the real killer please stand up? The biggest hindrance of productivity has apparently been the inbox all along.

A recent survey conducted by Robert Half Technology found that that 73% of chief information officers (CIOs) believe email will still remain the preferred mode of communication through 2020, with slightly over half of staff agreeing with the sentiment.

But is email really here to stay?

Since 2010, there have been several cases of companies banning the use of email altogether, including French information technology company Atos.

These companies found that the biggest hindrance of productivity, was right there in their inbox: the stream of emails sent out and received by employees each day.

Last year, a CareerBuilder study found that replying or reading emails took up 23% of the average individual’s work day, and this amounted to some 112 emails per person per day.

At HRM Asia’s Workforce and HR Analytics Congress yesterday, software developer TrustSphere’s Product Manager for People Analytics, Greg Newman, found that email is, in fact, the biggest culprit of bad time management among employees.

From his work with clients, he has found that employees with the least amount of flow time – or processing time to perform and focus on actual tasks – were those who were responding to or reading emails throughout the day.

On the flipside, TrustSphere found that the fewer emails people sent, the more productive they became because there were less interruptions.

The analytics firm also found that email was strongly linked to employee burnout. Employees most at risk of burnout were those sending emails throughout the day, even well into the night as late as 11pm.

Newman says this also leads to the phenomenon of over-collaboration – employees who spent too much time each day working and communicating with others, and not enough time on execution. These people, he says, will find themselves stressed out and burnout over time from being constantly connected. 

Employee burnout is a serious problem. It cost companies an estimated US$125 billion to US$190 billion in healthcare spending each year, according to Harvard Business School.

Two weeks ago, Sent, a new Singaporean comedy series (see video below) about an employee, named Jay, with a habit of typing nasty emails directed at co-workers, clients and even friends and families that he never actually sends out, premiered on HBO Asia.

Then one day, in an accident, he sends out all those drafts, and his world – both professional and personal – is turned upside down.

Sure, this is just a TV show. But it’s certainly not too far-fetched to think that this could easily become the reality of an overworked and unhappy employee somewhere in this world.

So if the old faithful email is such a huge nuisance, what can companies do when their main and preferred mode of communication is still Microsoft Outlook or Gmail?

Newman says the most effective method is to limit time spent on emails to just two hours a day – an hour in the morning, and another in the afternoon.

That way, employees are given a schedule to adhere to, requiring them to be more efficient, and if necessary, focus on the most urgent emails.

Or if companies are more revolutionary, they could go down the route of Atos, and completely remove the use of emails.

Consider this. After Atos announced its “zero email” initiative in 2011, it has seen its operating margin grow from 6.5% to 7.5% by 2013, with earnings per share rising by over 50%, and administrative costs dropping from 13% to 10%. 

It’s hard to say if the improved business outcomes were because of the no-email policy, but it would not be a stretch to make that connection as well.

For more of HRM Asia's take on today's real world business issues, head to the dedicated Analysis forum.


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