• Olli Junnila

Is your email overflow killing your productivity?




I just stumbled on an interesting statistic:


On average an office worker receives 121 emails and sends 40 emails per day!

Oh my, that’s a lot of email. Intrigued about this I went through my emails from two consulting projects, where I was given a company email account. I was shocked at what I found out. I knew both of these organisations had a problem with chronic email overflow (that was partly the reason why I was called to help), but the sheer amount was shocking.


The first one was a midsize software company with some 500 people working for them. During my first week I received a bit over 1200 emails, that’s 240 emails on an average day. I was new there, only a few people knew me and and I only knew a few. I was not in the loops yet, but still I received over 1200 emails. So obviously the emails were not directed to me, just some random emails sent to groups and I happened to be in some of those groups because I was in a certain part of the organisation. Digging further into the groups, I found out that many of the emails were addressed to a group withholding other groups withholding even more groups. Eventually an automated email stating, that a new version of a customers software had been successfully installed in the test environment had reached 247 persons, roughly 50% of the corporation, including the senior management and people from completely other business lines.


The other case was a really large organisation. There I received a modest 18 emails during my first week. Now that I recall, I did feel left “unattended” and had to find my right contacts in the organisation by my self. Later on the amount of email grew, but it wasn’t really the amount of email that burdened me, but rather what the email was used for. There were email threads, that had gone on for months. A large enterprise software was pretty much designed via an email thread. People copying, pasting and commenting things in the thread. Imagine being thrown to this discussion midway. Not knowing who these people were and not always clear to what part of the previous mails or meetings someone was referring to.

Both are good examples of email misuse, but getting back to the topic, I took a random month from both email accounts and analysed the content into a few larger categories.


And the results:


Two months (one from each organisation) = 42 working days. 5612 emails in total (that’s around 134 emails per day - quite close to the 121 average). I left out all the calendar related emails (meeting accepted/rejected, etc.) Here’s how they spread:



These are just two assignments in two organisations and obviously that’s not enough for any scientific study, but it does give some perspective to what email is being used for in businesses.



Let’s take a look at each of these categories in a bit more detail:


GENERAL ANOUNCEMENTS


These are many times the little bits and pieces of information that are really important to many people. It might be about the office, parking policies, catering to guests, travel planning and so on. Receiving five this kind of messages a day is not necessarily overdoing it and I felt these messages were justified.


NOTIFICATIONS FROM OTHER SYSTEMS


This was one of the biggest problems. There was just so much of them that they lost their power. At first my flow was interrupted by these notifications, but quite soon I didn’t even react to them and eventually I made an email rule that just moved them into a folder I never read. It's not only email that's affected, but notifications are now pushed from every angle if you don’t control them. It’s quite common place that we are notified on our laptop and a couple of times in the mobile. A notification pops into our email on both laptop and mobile, a mobile app throws a notification and sometimes even your mobile operating system provides the same notification. So one piece of information might become 4-5 “blings” on different devices. Manage your notification settings, they are the number one cause of distraction!


NEWS LETTERS AND BULLETINS


Now looking at these I think I read them all. They were good pieces of information, constructed with thought and the amount of information was just right.


IDEATION


These mails were mostly bouncing ideas and getting feedback on my own ideas. Really constructive stuff with a good mood.


GETTING WORK DONE


This is the bulk of all relevant emails and therefore also the most abundant. Due to the volume I didn’t go through them one-by-one, but on average I would say less than half are relevant communications and about half are just running around the subject or confirmations/acknowledgements. Being a consultant and running change management initiatives requires active communication and therefore roughly 1000 emails in 42 days makes around less than 25 emails a day - that’s still reasonable as long as the notifications are being controlled.


EXTERNAL SPAM


External spam doesn’t seem to be a problem these days in corporate environments. Spam filters are getting better and better and having different layers of filtering (network and email server) really gets rid of the most obvious ones. The ones that get through are not really bulk spam, rather targeted, but mismatched sales approaches.


INTERNAL SPAM


Well, this is something you can’t avoid completely, but receiving a couple a day is not really destroying your email user experience, is it?


BUILDING CULTURE


This is something that really struggles to find its place in typical corporate communication tools. Shouting out loud how much you love your job is really awkward via email. Discussing the softer issues of work in an email thread might not be for most of us. It’s really hard for management to bring positive feeling into emails without seeming like an artificial wrapper to the real context.


REACHING OUT


These were really the most fulfilling emails of them all. These were mails where someone wanted to leverage my expertise or wanted to help me in my initiatives. Partnering up or openly looking for possibilities to join forces in some projects.



Summary


All-in-all I think the burden of email is devastating! Out of those 5612 emails only one out of three were even somehow relevant. If I were to spend 2 minutes on each mail on average, that would take almost 5 hours of my work day. Having a well thought out and adopted social intranet and better management of notifications from other systems, the total amount of email could have been reduce by over 75%. That would have resulted into 34 emails a day on average and I think that’s just about right. Email is an excellent tool for what it’s meant for, but relying on email for all communications makes us slaves to email and and poor communications - it is almost impossible to focus on work itself.





I started this blog post with a statistic and I will end it with another one: 50% of mobile email users check work emails in bed - that’s not right! Manage your notifications, remove your email from your bedroom and test better tools for internal communications - and I'm quite sure you'll start to like and appreciate your email again.


Cheers,

Olli

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