What if there was no e-mail (Editorial)

Thanks to e-mail, workers are spending unproductive time managing low-priority messages while stressing themselves with information overload. Is banning e-mail use the answer? One British company thinks so.

Telecommunications firm Phones 4u is banning its 2,500 employees from sending internal e-mails, with limited external e-mails for serving customers’ needs. A single corporate briefing e-mail goes out daily to all staff.

The plan is to switch from e-mailing co-workers to making phone calls and speaking face-to-face. Phones 4u expects to save $2.2 million per month by eliminating three hours of daily time spent on e-mails by each employee. (It would be interesting to see the accounting assumptions on that one.)

Yes, everyone complains about e-mail. One Canadian senator is working on a private member’s bill to prevent e-mail spam by creating a national “do-not-e-mail” list. But valid concerns about time wasted on e-mail management and the mental health effects of e-mail overload don’t justify disposing a powerful internal employee communications tool.

In most organizations, the bulk of useless e-mail comes from outside, and despite filtering technology it keeps on coming. Everyone from corporate marketing departments, to solo entrepreneurs, to fraudsters promising millions of dollars in reward for helping to spirit money out of Nigeria, are vying for attention in employees’ in-boxes. But dealing with outside e-mail should not be linked with restricting internal e-mails.

Internal e-mails keep people connected, allow the discussion of daily problems, share information and knowledge, and pass around contacts. Managers can converse with a few reports on separate issues and projects all at the same time, rather than ambling from desk to desk or playing phone tag about minor questions.

While there are aspects of e-mail communication that are unproductive, its speed and accessibility also contribute to improved productivity. Half of respondents to a recent survey of workplace e-mail users, sponsored by software firm Oracle, said e-mail makes them more productive. The study polled 500 Canadians and 500 Americans.

If staff are wasting hours on pointless internal e-mails, the problem is with employees, not the communication mode. Won’t the same unproductive communications still be taking place, only in person?

If staff spend half an hour passing around e-mails about the latest reality TV show, how does discussing the previous night’s episode in person or over the phone improve the problem? Or if it’s a case of too many well-intentioned cc’s and forwarded items of interest to co-workers, simply raise awareness of the problem or ban the practice.

Internal e-mail misuse is nothing a good HR policy can’t fix. It’s a matter of guidelines and enforcement. Banning e-mail is a case of blaming the messenger.

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