My job description does not include managing email flow. Yours probably doesn't, either. But it's increasingly a big part of the work we do. In fact, in a single week last fall, I received 511 emails and sent 284. Almost 160 emails a day is ridiculous. Even if I was efficient and processed each email in 30 seconds, it would still take almost an hour and a half.
That same week, I further analyzed the activity in my inbox: 235 of my inbound emails were from people within the company, close to 46%. Colleagues copied me on 172 emails — the FYI culture that digitally drowns most executives. Another 47 emails had documents for my review.
These numbers were personally daunting, but I needed a more holistic view. By asking for the same information from others in the company, I found that my volume was slightly above average, but some of our senior executives were receiving close to 550 emails and sending almost 800 in a week. With an average of 32 words per email — about two sentences — many were likely superfluous update emails.
Anecdotally this clearly affected our company's efficiency, but we had all the data points to calculate the bottom-line financial impact. By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A "free and frictionless" method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs.
Upon further analysis, we learned that all of the departments had approximately the same volume of email, except for one. The outlier had only one-third of the typical email volume. Not only that, but each message had an average of 140 words, or roughly three paragraphs — one-third of the emails and each four times longer. Why?
I have spent time at a startup, a large consulting firm, a small PR firm, and the White House. During the arc of my career, the amount of email noise was often inversely correlated with the availability of alternate communication channels, as well as an organization's relative digital literacy. I've also found that an open office plan decreased overuse of email, since removing the physical barriers to communication dramatically lowers email reliance.
These traits were all present in our outlier group. They had an open and egalitarian office, with no individual offices. Every screen had an array of windows open — Skype, GChat, Campfire, Dropbox, Yammer, and Google Docs — the right technology for the right situation. And, the team was staffed with digitally savvy employees, most of whom have lived half of their lives plugged into the Internet.
This is what a digital office should be. It is the paradigm I want to see ingrained in our entire company's DNA. Email is the killer app of a generation... to a fault. For many employees it likely was their entrée into a digitally networked world, and has devolved over the last decade into a bloated and messy Franken-system. Mobile and frictionless, with no perceived cost, everything goes through email. The quick lunch invite, the short status update, the confirmation of receipt, the FYI email copying seven others, the surreptitious blind copy, and the list goes on. Our bad behavior has been compounding annually with very little hindrance.
The good news is that tools exist to fix this mess — collaboration software, social communities, instant messenger, telepresence, all powered by the omnipresent cloud. A few months ago, we moved the entire company to Google Apps, improving mobility and collaboration. Immediately, there was a massive shift in communication culture. One employee summed it up best when she commented that a "collaboration bomb exploded" in the office. Walking around the office now, you can see everyone using instant messenger to communicate. There's no need to email documents with collaborative editing in Google Docs. Early results are anecdotal, but initial data shows that it has been successful at decreasing our email abuse and increasing collaboration. My own email use has gone down by about 15%.
To me, email is the most abused method of communication in every office environment. And the widespread perception that it has no incremental cost is chronically damaging workplace efficiency. The challenge we are facing isn't an aversion to technology, but change. There is an entrenched level of comfort with email, making it habitual and a communications crutch. We have to take a holistic view and see email as one of many channels for collaboration. Adopt a breadth of tools to connect people, teach them the appropriate use of each and encourage smarter use of the right technology.