The ultimate office communication aid, e-mail has undoubtedly transformed work culture, but a lack of control over the inbox has led to it becoming more of a hindrance than a help. We look at how training is attempting to relieve the medium’s pressures
After only a few years, its seems impossible to imagine life without it. How did we cope before e-mail? Letters were written, faxes sent, memos circulated. People had to go to the lengths of telephoning each other or scheduling meetings, often trying to synchronise multiple diaries, to agree actions and get things done.
E-mail has become such an integral part of organisational culture, it is almost invisible. Documents that need to be sent out often go, at least in the first instance, as e-mail attachments. Answering a pile of e-mails becomes the first task in the morning. We find ourselves developing relationships with colleagues we know only through e-mail.
Its speed and ease are revolutionary. Looking at the anachronistic processes that preceded it, it is logical to assume that e-mail must be saving the workforce a massive amount of time. There must be productivity gains that are off the scale.
The irony is that in many cases, the opposite is true. What is being increasingly recognised in many organisations, is that e-mail is no panacea and can give rise to its own set of unique problems. In some cases, simply dealing with the e-mail tide is a significant workplace stress in its own right.
Taking the Strain, the Institute of Management’s report, published in February, shows “keeping up with e-mails” as the tenth most stress-inducing activity in a survey of over 800 UK managers. Its position in the rankings nudges e-mails into the “high pressure” zone, above factors such as “relationship with boss”. But in the electronically-dependent workplace, bad e-mail practice is also more than likely to contribute to the three most stressful factors in the study – “constant interruptions”, “time pressures and deadlines” and “poor internal communications”.
As the report points out, the perennial obstacle to tackling stress in the workplace, particularly among managers, is the “macho” culture of not admitting weakness or to a sense of being unable to cope. On top of that, separating out e-mail from a raft of other general stressors, and dealing with it as a phenomenon in its own right, is less likely when stress is coming from several directions at once. Bad e-mail practice may be identified during an internal communications audit (one of the recommended remedies in Taking the Strain), but because it is a technology-related problem, there is often a perception that the problem belongs to IT, not to human resources.
Research published this year by San Francisco-based consultancy Ferris Research, shows that using e-mail typically saved workers in the US 381 hours a year. But conversely e-mail also lost the average user 115 hours a year – for example, through wasted time dealing with e-mailed irrelevancies. The study came out with an overall net benefit – 266 hours – but the “two steps forward, one step back” route to that result is disturbing. Ferris concludes that companies need to develop and communicate clear policies on e-mail distribution lists, indiscriminate copying and personal e-mails.
The realisation being made by HR departments which do invest in specialised training, is that ignorance of simple communication rules can tip the balance, taking the e-mail load from manageable to unbearable.
“There is definitely an increased awareness about the effect e-mail is having on our working lives,” says Granada Media training officer Jane Foston. In April the company commissioned a course in e-mail practice from London-based Team IT Training.
For Granada it wasn’t evidence of stress that prompted the course, but an awareness of the exponential growth of e-mail that was circulating. Overload – “simple volume issues” – was the most prevalent problem, Foston says. “There was also a tendency to keep checking e-mails all the time, which can be disruptive when trying to get work done.”
The training highlighted a lack of awareness about how e-mail was received and the flow-on effect once the “send” button had been hit. Gratuitous use of “cc”ing (copying multiple people into e-mails) was a key problem. Often staff were not using the subject field properly to convey the message content, and simple rules like writing in capitals (shouting-in an e-mail) were identified.
“The training really challenged people to think about whether e-mail was the best way to communicate rather than picking up the phone or going to see them. Are we just clogging up the system by sending e-mails automatically?”
Following the training, says Foston, there was a sense that gaining greater knowledge of the medium saved people stress, giving them a new power over their inbox.
“It can be relentless,” says Hammersmith and Fulham Council direct services personnel manager Lorna Garrett. “People report leaving the office, then finding a massive number of e-mails waiting for them when they come back in.”
The council ran training sessions for 55 direct services managers, mainly to address potential legal issues with e-mails passing frequently to external contractors. In the process it found that managers needed to implement basic communication rules to keep their e-mail load under control.
Over-copying, using subject fields appropriately, using acronyms to denote the level of urgency and the tone of the e-mails themselves were addressed.
“There was a lot that needed to be done in the way that e-mails came across. It is an informal, casual medium and there are issues of professionalism. We had to smarten up our act,” Garrett says.
According to Marc Powell, director of Team IT Training, the lack of a communication “code of practice” is a major factor in e-mail stress. There are formulae and protocols for using the telephone and letter writing, but when it comes to e-mail, such codes don’t exist. This, plus the rapid growth of the medium – with thousands of inexperienced e-mail users are coming on stream all the time – compounds the problem.
Bad e-mail practice, particularly among management, can be not only irritating but destructive, he says. In one organisation Team IT worked with, a manager e-mailed staff at the start of the week about a team meeting on Friday in which he was to deliver “the good (or bad) news”. He was then on leave for the rest of the week. What he thought was tongue-in-cheek humour in his e-mail was taken as a negative portent by his staff, who were utterly demotivated and expecting the worst.
In another company, a manager took it upon himself to e-mail three directors, telling them of a decision he had taken with a colleague. He had a speaking relationship with only one of the three and his e-mail, which echoed his style of speech, managed to convey exactly the opposite of what he had intended. His colleague spotted the communication glitch and e-mailed a correction, but not before one of the directors had wasted a day pursuing the wrong action.
The urge to copy an e-mail to multiple people, either to win favour with management or cover oneself, is one of the worst factors in overload, Mr Powell says. “It can send all sorts of ambiguous messages. People think ‘Why do I need to know this?’ and assume some action is required of them. It causes confusion and untold unwarranted stress.”
Over-zealous copying is top of the list of e-mail “don’ts”. Other common bad habits include confusing or unclear subject lines; tagging e-mails “urgent” when they aren’t; forwarding e-mails with old messages still to be sifted through; scolding or arguing via e-mail; replying to the whole group in receipt of an e-mail instead of just the sender, and sending unnecessary attachments. But the critical issue in e-mail overload is simple overuse. In many instances, people send e-mails as a first action rather than phoning or physically meeting.
“The language that many managers use about their e-mail speaks volumes,” says Team IT director Bob Halliwell. “It is the language of addiction.”
Common phrases are “I can’t do without it”, “I need my e-mail fix”, “I’m addicted”. Many of the senior staff they work with, he says, check their e-mails compulsively and reply to all of them as soon as they come in.
E-mail overload is one symptom of the general information overload that afflicts managers, says Brian Sutton, commercial manager of professional skills at Cirencester’s QA Training. The company deals with e-mail stress management as part of its time management course. The sense of urgency with e-mails popping up makes it similar to the telephone – people feel impelled to deal with issues that are immediate as if they are urgent – – which they aren’t necessarily, he says.
“All of this, whether through time management, delegation, or maximising personal performance, is about understanding the process you are in. When staff have a thorough understanding of where they add value to the organisation, they understand the whole picture better and can better prioritise.”
He predicts that workflow management systems – common in the US but just scratching the surface here – will alleviate the problems of information overload and poor understanding.
According to Liz Lillie, Research International HR executive, awareness of e-mail usage has increased in all de- partments following the company’s training. Cross-company awareness has been boosted with e-mailed tips from IT staff and induction training that touches on e-mail protocol.
“For this company it is something that is very relevant. It is one of the main sources of communication and if there is a general lack of understanding about how it should be used, everyone can suffer”.
“Ping-pong” e-mails that went endlessly back and forth without action had been a problem, says Research International’s training organiser Ben Watson. “We found that people were very vague in e-mails, rather than being direct and saying ‘I want this from you’.
“You don’t get into specifics, then find yourself getting upset when people aren’t responding. Spending a little more time composing e-mails brings a real benefit in cutting down the sheer number of e-mails that you are having to field later.”
Around 60 staff received training and the difference is palpable, he says. Increasingly e-mails are tagged with acronyms to indicate their relative importance, which prioritises e-mails needing a fast response, if any at all.
Crucially at Research International, the involvement of the IT department in training initiatives has meant that good practice is stimulated and disseminated via the medium itself. Ensuring that staff know how to use their e-mail package, including features like filters, and setting up different folders for different e-mail types, has helped stem the e-mail flood.
Technological issues can be equally significant in adding to e-mail overload and boosting stress, says Michael Chapman Pincher of The User Group, a network of 700 corporate members. IT and HR should be jointly involved in both e-mail technicalities and in developing organisational practice, but the cultures seldom meet, he says.
“The difficulty is that IT and HR don’t trust each other very much. HR should be involved in the specification of IT products, but they rarely are. Too often there is an info-barony to be protected.”
Mundane administrative tasks that “close the loop” and that HR is unable to do itself to stop endless e-mail circulation are often not followed through effectively. Cooperation between the two departments is critical in setting up central information repositories that can avert e-mails – such as social areas on an intranet that stop classified-type e-mails going to every staff member, or document areas that can be linked to rather than using cumbersome attachments.
It is an issue that needs a “consistent and coherent approach”, but often the lead doesn’t come from the very top. Chief executives often read their e-mails as print-outs from the PA and write replies in long-hand. They have a built-in filter and circumvent the problem.
To drive organisational cooperation, real, sustainable change clearly needs to be led by those it affects. If the managers who are most susceptible to overload want to reduce stress, the onus is on them to drive the change that will prevent it.