E-mail has grown to be one of the most important communication and collaboration tools for business. As a result of its utility, according to IDC, e-mail volume has doubled over the past 5 years to over 40 billion person-to-person e-mails daily. Moreover, the volume is expected to continue to grow over 18 percent in each of the next five years.
For the average e-mail user, over 30 percent of their day is now spent on creating, organizing, reading and responding to e-mail, a significant amount of time that could potentially be streamlined. The growth in e-mail volume and handling time is bringing with it growing dissatisfaction with e-mail as a productivity tool. E-mail, once a tool for improved productivity, is now a contributing source to information overload and is compromising further increases in corporate productivity and competitive advantage.
Widely reported are the e-mail volume issues relating to spam. In organizations without proper protection in place, spam comprises 20 percent of total e-mail volume. Although spam does not take long to process, typical users still waste about 10 minutes on reading/deleting the e-mails each day, costing organizations $1,250 per user in lost productivity each year.
A larger issue, and one that remains largely unaddressed, is the general lack of e-mail etiquette and how this affects productivity. How many of us are copied on e-mails or invites that we didn't necessarily have to be copied on, or receive e-mail blasts about the latest snack in the kitchen, birthday or car in the parking lot with its lights on? How many of us waste time having to ask for clarification on an e-mail's content, or dealing with issues resulting from poorly crafted or rude e-mails?
Improving e-mail etiquette could help to reduce the volume of unproductive e-mails, improve communication and collaboration, and reduce growing frustrations with the abuse of the medium. Specifically, what are the most common etiquette issues, and how much can improvements drive savings?
Reply to all -- when users craft e-mails or create meeting invites, it is all too easy to copy too many recipients or, worse, entire work groups or all employees. Training and prompting users to better focus e-mail distributions can help to eliminate more than 10 percent of total e-mail received per day, according to recent case studies. For a typical 1,000-person organization, this practice improvement alone could reduce 5,700 e-mails per day - at a savings of three minutes spent reading and addressing each message, a savings of 285 person hours per day and over 35 full-time equivalents (FTEs) per year -- an overall 3.5 percent productivity improvement, and a potential recapture of $1,800 per year per employee in wasted labor costs.
Lack of Clarity and Tact -- When e-mails are poorly written, the reader has to spend more time deciphering the meaning or sending follow-up e-mails to question or clarify. Worse are unprofessional e-mails containing content that the author would never say to a person face-to-face or put down in hard copy. E-mails that are poorly organized, use poor grammar, use inappropriate business language, or put in e-mail what would be better served by direct face-to-face communication wastes precious time. Training and prompting for clear, concise and appropriate e-mails can result in a 40 percent improvement in respondents indicating that they feel e-mails are clear, concise and appropriate, and an almost 20 percent reduction in dissatisfaction with lack of e-mail clarity and content. Content improvements have demonstrated an average 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in e-mail time needed, an estimated 17 to 34 minute productivity improvement per user per day. Over a year, this could result in better use for the equivalent of 35 to 70 precious resources -- a 3.5 to 7.0 percent overall productivity improvement. This can help reclaim $2,100 to $4,100 per e-mail user per year in lost productivity.
What Can Be Done?
1. Don't Panic -- A lot of your users already have that base covered. Information overload is one the highest stresses reported by knowledge workers. A systematic approach to reducing and improving e-mail with demonstrated results is a powerful method of getting the attention of e-mail users. Hastily implemented patches like sending more e-mails about e-mail etiquette, writing new policies and procedures, and putting technology constraints (reducing e-mail storage allocations, file size limitations, banning personal communication) in place commonly fail to change behavior and reach the objectives. All these do is put a big problem in a smaller box.
2. Take ownership -- A major fault with e-mail is the lack of ownership of how the technology is productively used. E-mail is an orphan enterprise application and is often the default communication and collaboration platform. Does general management take charge? Where is the user manual for knowledge workers? Does HR take charge? Do we leave the individual worker to figure out how to spend 30 to 40 percent of their workday (and often personal time - evenings, weekends and vacations)? The IT organization is in a unique position to improve e-mail behavior. IT is the custodian of e-mail technology and therefore can naturally extend influence on user behavior. There is precedence for this in other enterprise applications. IT is also in a unique position to benefit from improved e-mail usage. This includes addressing exploding storage and archiving volume, compliance and litigation issues.
3. Use a three bears approach -- Personal behavior in an enterprise setting is very difficult to modify. An enterprise is too big and a single person is too small to be a behavior change catalyst. Perhaps a team is just the right size. Knowledge workers naturally coalesce into teams, both permanent and temporary. The majority of communication and collaboration is done in the team dynamic. Real progress can be made by using teams as peer influences to share ideas, develop best practices, and mentor each other to improve team performance.
4. Training not technology -- Every knowledge worker has more functionality than will ever be used. Adding more technology to enable, constrain or to change behavior is an expensive and futile effort. Most users would benefit greatly from a training program that introduces and supports improved use of the technologies already in place.
The Bottom Line
Improving e-mail etiquette is a hidden area for potential cost savings and productivity improvement. With proper implementation, this best practice can generate an average 10 percent reduction in e-mail volume and improve e-mail quality and save 10-20 percent handling time, resulting in expected 7 to 10.5 percent overall productivity improvements, some $4,100 to $6,000 in wasted productivity recapture per employee per year.
Lessons on how to understand and improve these issues are covered in a compelling new book, The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (Hardcover) by Mike Song, Vicki Halsey, Tim Burress, Kenneth Blanchard.