Is email making you ill? Find out how a range of companies are helping workers free themselves from their inbox
If our relationship with email in 2015 were captured in an emoji, it wouldn’t be pretty.
Fear of falling behind a deluge of emails is a major source of anxiety for as many as 67% of holidaygoers.[i] One study found that a distracting email notification increases the time it takes to complete a task by one third[ii], while another concluded that completely disconnecting from your inbox for just one week drastically reduces stress levels.
“We used to have the jacket on the back of the chair syndrome, where employees would leave evidence of themselves in the building so that passers-by assumed they were working late. Today we have email and there’s an element of machismo at play in this ‘presenteeism’ around late night, weekend and holiday emails,” says Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology & Health at Manchester Business School.
When the CEO of IT organisation Atos, Thierry Breton, realised his 80,000 workers were deluged by emails, he took drastic action: directing his workers to avoid emailing each other within the same building, with the eventual goal of eradicating internal email across the organisation’s 42 countries.
After delving into the company’s internal email epidemic, Atos found that barely 10% of mails sent warranted attention. Yet almost three quarters of workers estimated they spent 25% of their time on inbox management – a fact which caused 82% significant stress, and an enduring pressure to ‘be seen’ on email outside office hours - to the tune of 20 hours per employee per week.
Now four years into ‘zero email’, Atos says it has reduced inbox sizes by 64% (an employee who once received an average 100 emails a day now receives fewer than 40).
Furthermore, up to 220 ‘business processes’ - including leave bookings previously handled by email - have been redesigned to become ‘email free’. All in all Atos estimates it’s saved 25% in unproductive time, and created a seismic shift in how information is communicated and shared across the business – something Breton says was inspired by its youngest newcomers, many of who grew up with social media and, prior to appointment, had no experience of email.
In Germany, where the government is considering a ban on emails outside office hours, several organisations are taking early – and drastic – measures to encourage a healthier approach to electronic communication. Carmaker Volkswagen shuts down its BlackBerry server at 6pm every weekday, while fellow automotive specialist Daimler has introduced an ‘auto-delete policy’ on emails sent to vacationing employees; a bounce-back is triggered asking the sender to try again when the recipient returns.
Long-time everywoman partner Vodafone is taking a more holistic approach to the email problem, recommending employees use it sparingly, but leaving them free to do so at hours that suit them.
“Our core office hours are 10 to 3, and beyond that employees are targeted on their productivity rather than being ‘present’. We wouldn’t suggest banning email at certain times because that would severely limit options to work flexibly, something which is at the heart of our ‘Better Ways Of Working’ initiative,” says Lucielle Cartwright, Organisational Development Manager in Vodafone’s Learning & Development team.
Better Ways Of Working was born of a 2005 flood, which left the UK head office inaccessible, and employees — separated from desks and inboxes — twiddling their thumbs. As a result, stationary desks were removed, leaving staff to choose where to sit each time they arrive at work — a move necessitating a drastic overhaul of internal communications.
“Our leaders live and breathe it so it’s become culturally imbedded across the organisation,” Cartwright explained. “And what we see today is that there’s a direct correlation between these measures, and not only productivity, but employee wellbeing too.”
Those organisations without an email usage policy are urged by Sir Cary Cooper to formulate one – sooner rather than later given that global business usage — currently at 108.7 billion emails daily – is predicted to grow by 6% over the next four years[iii]. “Einstein warned that technology could surpass human interaction,” he says. “It’s happening, and workplaces have to step in when employees can’t kick the habit.”