Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Avalanche of E-mail

I have to vent. I returned from a week of vacation yesterday to find 494 e-mails in my work in-box (where were you other six slackers who could have helped make it an even 500?).

My volume of mail is somewhat unique to my situation, as yours probably is as well. As a manager, I'm copied on any e-mail of importance, including messages from our corporate offices. I get copies of quality control reports on each and every one of our newscasts (so that's an automatic 9 e-mails a day). I field all of the e-mails from viewers that come to our investigative mailbox from our website, which range in volume from one or two to upwards of 10 a day. And for some reason, I got labeled in the PR community as the station's arts and entertainment news coordinator, so now I get probably a dozen press releases each day on everything from movie openings to book signings. I can't imagine how I'd be tearing my hair out if I owned a BlackBerry!

An IBAC survey survey of more than 13,000 members in 2006 found that 47% say they receive too much e-mail, 44% admit sending too many messages, those in larger companies (5000+) reported e-mail overload more often than their small-company counterparts, and 61% felt that outside news sources and professional subscriptions was the main source of the e-mail overload.

While e-mail has certainly become an indespensible part of communicating in many workplaces -- mine included -- I think it's almost become a hindrance that wastes a lot of time, and allows people to avoid face to face interactions. When a colleague who's sitting a few feet away e-mails me instead of getting up to come and talk, you know things have gone too far. And when you obsessively check e-mail to avoid doing other work, you know you've got a problem.

One study out of King's College in London found that our "infomania" or obsession with e-mail and texting actually lowers our IQ as much as 10 points, or more than smoking pot! The researchers theorize that you can't fully concentrate on a task when you have one eye on the in-box, and long term, they say, this constant distraction can cause damage to our mental ability. Yikes!

So, what to do?

We can start by looking in the mirror: if I send fewer e-mail messages today and deal with my co-workers face to face, at the very least I won't be contributing to their overload. But when it comes to managing the e-mail I get, here are some tips that those in the IABC survey say they use:

@deal with a message only once: read, and then delete or respond immediately

@triage your e-mail account, removing the irrelevant and low-value messages

@organize messages by deadline, subject or assignment

@schedule regular times to deal with e-mail and close the browser in between

@shut off the pop-up window and audio that come with the arrival of a new message

Survey respondents also had some great suggestions for how companies can help their employees deal with the avalanche of e-mail and clean up workplace "nettiquette." They include:

@use clear and correct subject lines, and indicate if the message is for action now or FYI

@eliminate distribution lists of more than five names.

@outlaw the use of the cc, bcc, forwarding and "reply to all" functions.

@ban e-mails that are intended only as "butt covers"

@for short messages, put all the information in the subject line, ending with "EOM" (end of message) to indicate that the reader doesn't need to open the rest of the message

@use e-newsletters which can eliminate many e-mails from a particular source (my parent company CBS has done this by sending out regular regular newsletters encapsulating multiple subjects, instead of sending out memos on each one)

@create an "e-charter," a formal, companywide set of policies, rules and guidelines about e-mail use.

The experts also recommend the use of alternative forms of electronic communication, like wikis for collaborative projects (sure beats all those e-mail strings forwarded around and around your group), and text messaging for short messages or urgent matters.

Excellent suggestions all. But even though we all moan and groan about getting too much e-mail, given our obsession with it, I wonder if we'll really take the advice.

P.S. That IABC survey? It was sent to members... via e-mail!

1 comment:

Mara Linaberger said...

Heya RedHead,

Gotta agree here, and tell you I've cut my emails way down with the use of a professional wikispace. When I took my new job in January, I asked my boss if I could do all of my work on a wiki. She agreed, and away I went teaching myself the technology. I have to say the ride has been amazing. I no longer need to email her to share links or summaries, or to update her on my progress on projects. Pretty much I only email short questions when she's not in the office. I hope that I'm helping to reduce the overall number of emails that she receives.

I've actually starting to call myself a bonefied "wikiholic" as I now praise their use to anyone who will listen. I did a full blown workshop via a wiki two weeks ago, a training on wikis for busy administrators several days later, and spent last week "teaching" podcasting, vodcasting, and machinima to arts educators from a wiki - and yes, they all became converts after seeing how easy it was to contribute, share, and collaborate.

Your gray-haired sister