The advice to quit email, whether that means getting rid of all internal company email or just quitting your email application while you’re working, more often than not meets a harsh reply: “No. I can’t.”
Is there evidence that the advice is any good in the first place? And more importantly, when people have given up email, what happened to them? Wouldn’t you want to know before you tried it for yourself?
Case 1: 76,000 Employees, 52 Countries
A little more than a year ago, I interviewed Marc Bovens (Duffy, 2014), a man at the helm of a program to get rid of email at a giant multinational company called Atos. In 2011, the company’s CEO, Thierry Breton made a bold proclamation that all employees, more than 76,000 of them across 52 countries, would no longer use email to communicate with one another (they could still use it with external clients and partners). He called it the Zero Email program, and Bovens became its global program manager.
Atos took three years to phase out email. At the end of those three years, they had reduced internal email by 60 percent by giving employees better avenues to communicate, such as an online social network for the company and Microsoft Lync for video conferencing. The company culture shifted to encourage more face-to-face interactions when possible. Even though email wasn’t gone 100 percent, the program was considered successful. The company has made available many of its reports on the Zero Email program, what went into it and how it panned out.
When I spoke with Bovens back in 2014, he explained that the initial decision to eliminate email came from the fact that employees were spending as much as 40 percent of their time mucking around with emails. Management saw that time as questionable and probably not a great contributor to the bottom line.
After reducing email, sales costs decreased, and sales performance increased, according to Bovens. When I lasted checked in with him, each employee was received around 20 to 25 internal company emails per week, and while that number isn’t zero, it is small enough that people don’t regard email as being a problem anymore. Employees are comfortable with that amount of information via email.
Case 2: 13 Research Subjects, One Office
In a 2012 study (Mark), 13 research subjects working in a real company were cut off entirely from office email for five working days straight. They were allowed to use personal email at home, but their office email programs were configured to hide incoming messages and not pop up notifications. (They used Outlook, and they were allowed to access their calendars and use other aspects of the program.) The employees were a mix of managers and non-managers, comprising chemical engineers, materials scientists, psychologists, biologists, food technologists, and research administrators.
Thirteen people is a much different scale than 76,000, but we can look at the results of this study from a different angle, asking how people felt about giving up email and how hard it was to dig out once they resumed using it.
Before we get to the subjects’ reactions, it’s interesting to note that these people who gave up email did one thing in particular that the Atos team also did: They got out of their chairs and had more face-to-face encounters with colleagues. The subjects’ colleagues were aware of the experiment, and they had the job telling their co-workers any crucial companywide information that might have been delivered via email. Before the experiment started, the researchers kept logs of how the participants worked while they still had access to email so that they could draw definitive conclusions about changes in behavior.
So what happened? When email was out of the picture, people multitasked less and task-switched less. They had longer “task focus,” meaning they spent more uninterrupted time on a task at hand. Before they quit email, most of the participants worried how they’d keep up and how bad it would be to slog through the messages when they resumed email. But by and large, they did just fine, if not better than they expected. According to the paper:
“In the [daily end-of-day] interviews, most of the informants described that they dreaded reading their email when they concluded participation in the study. However, the process of catching up was not as bad as they anticipated. One informant, for example, said that when he returned to email, he read through his inbox quickly and learned a strategy of eliminating emails based on their subject header. He claimed that this took far less time than handling emails by checking them regularly throughout the day.”
Another reaction from one subject highlights the fact that many emails really aren’t as urgent as the senders might make them out to be:
“[T]his informant receives ‘taskers’ from his superiors. These refer to tasks that he needs to do immediately. As a lab scientist, this interferes with his ability to set up and run experiments without interruption. When his email was cut off, the taskers suddenly stopped. Though his superiors could have called him on the phone or walked down the hall to delegate the task to him, this did not happen. This experience led him to believe that the taskers he had been receiving by email were either not important or that the senders had taken initiative to find the information themselves when he was off email.”
What’s implied by the above quote is that email creates unique problems. Those same problems don’t happen in other types of communication, which suggests there is real value in giving groups of people, particularly employees, alternative ways to communicate.
So many studies point to problems with email and how it wrecks knowledge workers’ productivity. Quitting email for predetermined blocks of time, or making a concerted effort to reduce email by using alternative communication channels, really seems to benefit workers.
Duffy, J. (2014). The Push for Zero Email. PCMag.com. Retrieved from http://in.pcmag.com/internet/49327/feature/the-push-for-zero-email Feb. 25, 2016.
Mark, G., Voida, S., and Cardello, A. (2012). A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. Proceedings of CHI’12. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2015 from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf. doi 10.1145/2207676.2207754
Image by Alexander Lyubavin, CC.