Breaking the e-chain

E-mail
was meant to make our lives easier, but many employees just end up feeling
stressed by their inboxes. Margaret Kubicek finds out how training can improve
the link between e-mail and productivity

It is easy to picture the scene: you return from a two-week holiday relaxed
and refreshed – until you boot up your computer to discover hundreds of e-mails
ready and waiting, and the tension starts to mount.

Or, as you are ploughing through any one of the dozens of e-mails that come
your way each day, the server suddenly goes down – cutting off the whole
organisation from e-mail – and now that you think of it, isn’t that happening
more and more these days?

These are all too familiar occurrences for workers everywhere – and symptoms
of the e-mail overload have now reached endemic levels in the 21st century
workplace. With more than seven in 10 firms (75%) acknowledging that e-mail is
critical to business today, it is obvious that what began life some 10 years
ago as a tool of rapid communication has now evolved into much more.

E-mail has become the most important method used in the workplace to agree
activity with colleagues, customers and clients, yet the vast majority of
organisations are failing to address the role of inbox management in staff
productivity, or to incorporate e-mail into their training schemes.

Source of Stress

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that e-mail is an increasing source of
stress for workers across all sectors. Now, as a survey commissioned by Veritas
Software confirms, e-mail has been identified as a major catalyst for workplace
stress.

The survey reveals that our dependency on e-mail is so great that as little
as 30 minutes without e-mail access causes more than two-thirds of users to
become irate. Nearly 80 per cent (76 per cent) of IT managers reported that
their jobs would be on the line if their organisation’s e-mail became
unavailable.

So with a problem that obvious, why is it overlooked in the training mix?
One likely reason is that the much-touted ‘user-friendliness’ of today’s
Windows-based systems has lulled us into a false sense of ease.

"They’re designed to be easy to use, but that doesn’t mean you don’t
need training," says Chris Boorman, a vice-president of marketing at
Veritas. "You only get the most value out of them if you’re able to use
them correctly."

Mark Kenyon, a regional director of IBM Lotus, agrees. "I think in the
corporate space people generally use e-mail to 60-70 per cent efficiency,"
he says. "That doesn’t mean the product is only delivering 60-70 per cent
of what they need, they are just using e-mail in the wrong way."

Boorman and Kenyon obviously emphasise the technological solutions available
to organisations trying to keep the e-beast under control. Innovations such as
diary management packages, spam filters, instant messaging, enabling colleagues
to know whether a recipient is online before sending a message, or ever-more
powerful systems support to ensure organisations can cope with the growing
traffic of e-mail on their servers.

But to make any real impact on the e-information overload, organisations
must acknowledge it as a cultural issue and address it as such in their
strategies, according to e-mail management expert Monica Seeley, author of
Managing in the Email Office (published in May 2003) and visiting fellow at
Imperial College Business School.

"E-mail is seen as IT, and therefore the board of most organisations
don’t own it," says Seeley. "They delegate it to the IT
department."

For example, one of the most common purposes of internal e-mails is to cover
one’s back. Gareth Emmonds, HR consultant for Black Mountain, says: "We’ll
phone someone up and ask for something, then follow it up with an e-mail. It is
part of a bigger picture of the blame culture."

Where e-mail policies do exist, they are all too often just rigorous
statements of what workers must not do in terms of etiquette. Training can have
a significant impact on productivity with regard to e-mail, but contextualising
policies in terms of what they mean for both the employer and the employee is
critical, Emmonds argues.

"E-mail should be part of wider time management training, particularly
for middle managers," he says. "There’s a tendency to be overwhelmed
by e-mail and drown in it rather than try to tackle it."

As much as a third of most inboxes are comprised of "internal unwanted
nonsense", according to Seeley. "Very few companies have yet to come
out of the closet on e-mail," she says. "They don’t have a policy – a
set of behaviours that are easily understandable. Most policies are incoherent,
incomplete and just buried in the employee handbook."

E-change

Some organisations are waking up to the implications of e-mail overload on
cost and productivity. Earlier this year, Centrica launched half-day seminars
for staff on how to get the most effective use out of their mailbox.

IT training manager Richard Malam, says: "We wanted to make people’s
interaction on e-mail a lot slicker, and save the company money by not having
to buy more and more servers to support unnecessary e-mails."

Seeley advises organisations to develop e-mail charters consisting of a
handful of bullet-style ‘value statements’ on best practice [see box, left] as
an initial step in implementing wholesale culture change. Lafarge Aggregates
has developed nine such principles, and runs e-mail briefings on best practice
which last less than an hour for its key e-mail users.

Alistair Fuller, head of business systems, says: "They are very short –
people identify with the issues of e-mail relatively easily. The nine
principles are in a memorable form of delivery which gives people a code of
practice they can use with their colleagues."

Further support in the form of coaching is offered for those workers
"still drowning in e-mails", says Fuller. "It’s more observational
support rather than instructional led – watching them do e-mail and how they
structure it."

Most organisations may have some way to go yet to improve their e-mail lot,
but companies such as Lafarge Aggregates, Centrica and BT [see below] are
already making progress without having to make huge investments of time and
money – suggesting a short, sharp approach can reap real benefits in terms of
staff productivity.

"E-mail is a fact of modern life," says Emmonds. "We won’t
ever get away from it, but we can significantly decrease the amount of e-mails
by training employees as to what is appropriate use."

How to manage your inbox

Lafarge Aggregates shares its Nine S’s of E-mail Best Practice:

– Set aside time to deal with your e-mail – don’t dip in each
time your prompt sounds; deal with e-mail each day, but don’t spend more than
half an hour on it at any one time

– Signpost the purpose of your e-mail – put as much detail as
possible in the subject line

– Show consideration – allow time for the response; expecting
one immediately is unreasonable

– Select the best medium for your message – is e-mail the most
appropriate?

– Short words and sentences are the most effective – grammar
needn’t be perfect if the message is direct

– Send back unwanted e-mails – only then will cultural change
permeate the entire organisation

– Structure your mailbox – use folders, sub-directories and
colour coding to keep messages well-organised

– Scrutinise attachments before sending – far too many are
unnecessary or could just as easily be in the message itself

– Stop before you open unusual attachments

Case study: British Telecom

When British Telecom set out to tackle e-mail overload among its some
100,000 employees, the telecommunications giant looked beyond technology for a
solution.

"I thought we really needed to take a holistic approach
towards e-mail best practice, including training," says head of
information infrastructure, Heather Alexander.

Technological solutions such as automatic deletion of old
messages merely deal with the symptoms without addressing the underlying
cultural issues which cause inefficient e-mail practice, according to Alexander.

A survey of BT’s workforce last winter revealed widespread
frustration about e-mail, with nearly 80 per cent of workers believing the
e-mail situation is getting worse and 100 per cent believing they don’t have
enough time to deal with the e-mails that are already there.

BT worked with consultant Monica Seeley and sought the advice
of ‘exemplar companies’ such as Intel to formulate its strategy to improve
e-mail efficiency.

A charter outlining the company’s expectations regarding e-mail
best practice is being developed, and the company is now piloting an online
‘e-mail fitness check’, which rates staff as bronze, silver or gold e-mail
experts. Workers can then do individualised, bite-sized training to progress to
the next level.

The third prong of BT’s strategy is the development of
team-based workshops on e-mail best practice. Alexander says: "The idea is
to do it for groups of people who work together. That way, they can use peer
pressure to bring about change."

Rather than bill the workshops as formal training, the plan is
to "hijack a team meeting", and encourage teams to agree on how they
are going to use e-mail. For example, they discuss the circumstances under
which they will use it and, more importantly, when they will not.

British Telecom will also train a team of internal coaches in
e-mail best practice – likely to be a mixture of HR and IT people – to serve as
facilitators at team workshops, and also to be champions of best practice among
colleagues.

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