The Tyranny of Email

Tuesday, 19 April 2011, 10:14 | Category : General
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I was intrigued to read in a recent New Statesman article (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/04/email-atos-electronic) that IT services firm, Atos Origin, plans to rid its organisation of email within three years. This decision struck a chord with me as I’ve long sensed that email was becoming increasingly ineffective in the workplace. Rather than supporting the way we work, it seems now often to structure it.

Ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress, Global Telecoms Business editor, Alan Burkitt-Gray, spelt out the maths behind his decision not to respond to emails: “Work it out: 2 minutes to respond to each of those 157 so far is 314 minutes; nearly five hours and a quarter, saying No.”
( http://globaltelecomsbusiness.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/two-weeks-to-go-and-the-schedules-just-about-full/)

While ignoring emails might be a realistic option for a journalist, this simply isn’t the case for most professionals in service industries. And the volumes PR professionals receive can be comparable to those mentioned by Burkitt-Gray – speaking to acquaintances at agencies and in-house teams, it is not uncommon for people to return to work after a two-week holiday to 2,500+ emails. A similar situation, smaller in scale, occurs with people out the office for a couple of days. Of course, many of these can instantly be deleted but I’d guestimate that most people would have to process around 70% of their emails to keep happy those suppliers, clients and colleagues expecting them to be up to speed on what had gone on while they were away.

Along with this drain on time (exacerbated by ineffective archiving and search systems – how often have you wasted the best part of an hour trying to find an old email?), email can distort what it means to be responsive and productive in the workplace. It seems to shift the emphasis from being proactive and cracking on with agreed plans to a mode of reacting to what hits the inbox.

Rather than being the means to an end, it becomes the end itself. The volume of emails an individual can take in, action and send becomes a measure by which their productivity and effectiveness are judged. Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves that our value as PRs lies in our insight, creativity and professional relationships – not in our ability to fire off or recall the contents of endless emails.

I’ve seen bright young things – hired for their intelligence and lateral thinking – come into an organisation and struggle because they find it difficult to manage the volume of email. I make a confession here too of complicity – I have managed people and stressed the need for them to get on top of email as one way of reassuring colleagues and clients of their competence. I question now whether that is really what we want from our teams.

Email also skews priorities so that we deal with an endless stream of supposedly ‘urgent’ communiqués rather than what is really important to the business and its clients. I appreciate that PR is a fast moving business, calling for quick thinking and even swifter responses. What often happens however is that responses get prioritised by junior staff according to organisational hierarchies rather than genuine business need.

Of course, there are ways of managing each of these challenges but, as far as I can see, for this to be effective an entire organisation would need to be signed up to the process – with senior members of staff managing peers’, clients’ and partners’ expectations in how their team can be expected to use and respond to email.

Atos’s head of IT leadership says email will be replaced by, “a range of enabling technologies: instant messaging, voice, video conferencing.” On their own though, these tools could be equally subject to the same pitfalls described above.

One way of solving the problems of email overload would be to automate as many as possible of the processes involved. That would require some pretty sophisticated software however – able to determine the relative importance of in-bound mails, send polite refusals and holding notes as appropriate on your behalf, and highlight those missives truly requiring your attention. All of which would leave us to get on with those tasks outside our inboxes that are actually for the most part what our companies and clients pay us for.

However, that kind of approach would still place email at the centre – in control of shaping the work that we do. I think many people would be very thankful of the IT giant that could free us from the constraints of this relationship.

Marc Sparrow

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