Banning Email to Increase Productivity

The news we’ve all been waiting for has arrived–email is dragging us down. What many workers have griped about for the past two decades is now making news: Email may not increase our productivity after all.

A Short History of Email

download2First, a short history of email may be in need. Email has existed since the 1970s, but it was not until the 1980s that email or electronic mail started to transform the workplace. While most early email was internal, as the Internet expanded and more and more workplaces went “online,” email became increasingly ubiquitous. By the mid 1990s, a growing number or workers, students and consumers were online, making email an increasingly affordable option for long distance communication. Better yet, it was well suited to both private and public forms of communication. In short, it could be used in lieu of a letter (one to one communication) or newspaper (one to many communication). But not everyone was eager to embrace email. Many unionized employees, including educators, refused to use email, arguing that the new form of communication was expending their workday and essentially creating hours of unpaid work. What happened? Despite an initial period of resistance, by the early 2000s, most workers were already on board and email was ubiquitous across sectors.

Email’s Impact on Productivity

Jump ahead to 2016.  Americans send 108 billion email messages every day, most American workers hate sorting through their email and email takes up to 23% of employee’s workdays on average. Indeed, the average worker sends 112 emails per day. So is it helping? At least some people have concluded that email is doing anything but raising productivity.

To put this assumption to the test, Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos Origin (ironically, a French-based technology firm) came to this conclusion several years ago. In short, Breton found that his employees were being negatively impacted by their email, and he decided to do something about it. In February 2011, Breton announced that he was banning email. That’s right–with over 70,00download0 employees in 40 offices around the world, Breton was doing away with email.  In fact, Breton had already done away with email long before he decided to outlaw it in his company.  Did it work? Not exactly–today, Atos employees still use email but they have reduced their use of email by 60%. During this time, Atos’s operating margin also increased marginally. Notably, Atos did not ban all electronic communications–just email (they also introduced other networking platforms). But the upside is still apparent. As a report in this week’s Harvard Business Review suggests, email may simply be making us stressed out.

As reported, a group of University of California researchers recently cut of email usage for thirteen civilian office workers in the U.S. Army and measured the impact on their productivity and stress. What happened?

Participants began to communicate face-to-face and over the telephone more frequently. Most participants also spent significantly more time in each computer program that they used, suggesting that they were much less distracted. Judging by heart rates, participants also experienced significantly less stress when blocked from email. The participants even noticed this effect themselves. They consistently reported feeling more relaxed and focused, as well as more productive, with their email shut off than under normal working conditions.

The Pros and Cons of Banning Email

Ready to ban email? If you are, first consider the pros and cons of moving away from email. Yes, you may be more relaxed and have more time to communicate off line. On the other hand, archiving workplace correspondence has many benefits. For example, having a written trace can prove extremely critical when dealing with workplace conflicts, compliance and legal issues. Email can also be an effective way to communicate with workers around the world. While some social media platforms are regionally based, email is more or less available anywhere in the world.  Perhaps, the answer is not to ban email but rather to find ways to manage email’s use so it stops stressing workers out and becomes the useful tool it was suppose to be when first introduced.



June 10, 2016   Updated :June 10, 2016      

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