posted 29 May 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 7
E-mail overload: Treat the problem, not the symptom
THERE IS SOMETHING better than no e-mail Fridays and e-mail bankruptcy. Both are attempted solutions for businesses and individuals to deal with the increasing overload and overwhelm due to the ever-accelerating amount of e-mail received. And in my view, both are classic cases of addressing the symptom rather than the problem. Both are, at best, short-term bandages when major surgery is needed. First, what are these bandages? People declare e-mail bankruptcy by deleting everything in their e-mail – everything, informing their entire contact list they’ve done so and asking them to resend anything pending or important. No e-mail Fridays are when businesses adopt a practice of co-workers agreeing to not use e-mail each Friday. The intention of this program is to essentially force people to use ways other than e-mail to communicate. Let’s be real – e-mail is here to stay. It could be among the top technological inventions of the 20th century, enabling productivity with lightening-fast, efficient, inexpensive global communication. As with anything overused, this great tool can turn into a horrific burden when not used effectively. The misuse and personal mismanagement of e-mail is rampant in the business community – the fact that people are declaring e-mail bankruptcy, subscribing to e-mail addiction newsletters, and promoting no e-mail Fridays tells me it has gone too far. These solutions don’t deal with the real issue. No e-mail Fridays are a well-intentioned attempt to stem the growing trend of people relying too heavily on e-mail as their primary communication tool. They focus on the increasing number of workers who spend the day in their offices tapping away on their keyboards rather than dialing the phone or calling a meeting to hammer out an issue – infecting those people who would prefer to communicate by phone or in person by chaining them to their desks, answering messages sent by those who hide behind e-mail. A noble effort, but just on Friday? And declaring e-mail bankruptcy is even more ridiculous! Offering e-mail bankruptcy as a quick fix not only places the burden on others, it also guarantees a person’s e-mail overload will return. The real issue is the failure to give workers tools and guidance regarding efficient best practices in handling e-mail. The real issue is that toxic e-mail cultures have evolved, untreated. The real issue is that business leaders have panned the need to address this silently growing cancer they see but won’t acknowledge. The only productive means to deal with the continually growing amount of inbox messages is to collectively improve e-mail management habits, infuse a productive e-mail culture among all workers, and use this tool in the way it was intended. The remedies, which are simple to understand, are more difficult to infuse because they involve changing habits across a wide spectrum of employees. And there can be as many remedies as there are employees, because each person has a unique set of time-sapping habits that can be changed for the better. The remedy involves changing a culture, rather than implementing a procedure. It takes more time, effort and leadership than simply declaring e-mail bankruptcy or no e-mail Fridays. It takes surgery, not a band-aid.
Marsha Egan is CEO of EganEmailSolutions.com. She can be contacted at Marsha@MarshaEgan.com