RE: Evaluating Email

Morgan O'Rourke


February 2, 2012

Recently, CEO Thierry Breton of the French tech firm Atos caused a minor stir when he announced that he was banning his employees from sending email. The idea sounds crazy until you consider his rationale. He said that the volume of email his employees send and receive was "unsustainable for business." Of the 200 or so messages his employees receive every day, only 10% are actually useful, while 18% are spam. The ban is only intended to apply to internal emails -- external emails with clients and partners are still permitted. The ultimate goal, Breton said, was to become a "zero email" company by 2013.

If your inbox is anything like mine, the idea of no email has to bring a smile to your face. Our IT department periodically sends out notices that we need to clean out our overloaded inboxes so the system can function more efficiently, and I'm usually one of the worst offenders. When I finally do sort through the mess, I usually find that I have been copied on items that don't really have anything to do with me, and have been inundated with pointless forwards, unnecessary "thanks" and "OK" replies and a host of junk mail from sites I don't remember signing up for. Breton's 10% useful figure seems about right.

When you consider the productivity lost from email interruptions, those useless replies begin to feel even more egregious. A 2008 study from the UK's Loughborough University found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after an email interruption, while a 2007 Microsoft study revealed that it can take up to 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks after an interruption. 

The other concern is what effect this volume of so-called "information pollution" is having on our personal lives. The proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other networked devices means that you are always connected to your inbox, no matter where you go. There has been many a weekend where a brief glance at my work email has resulted in my being unintentionally pulled into "work-mode" for the next hour. I have heard all the reports that warn against letting the work/life balance shift too far to the work side, but sometimes it is hard to avoid. 

But even this type of email access is coming under fire. In December, German automaker Volkswagen, as part of a collective bargaining agreement with its workforce, agreed to stop sending emails to employees when they are off the clock. Emails will stop a half hour after quitting time and won't start up again until a half hour before the start of the workday in order to prevent worker burnout. It's a move that further illustrates how more and more companies are moving away from email, or at least acknowledging its downside.

But as enticing as an office without email might sound, it is hard to imagine such a thing actually becoming a business standard. Sure, zero email has its benefits. Less strain on IT systems means more efficient use of tech resources, and e-discovery issues stop being a problem when there's nothing to discover. But what are the alternatives? Atos plans to rely on instant messaging, social networking, file-sharing applications, face-to-face chats and telephone calls. It seems to work for Breton, who claims he hasn't sent a single email since he became CEO of Atos in 2008.

But while these other options will reduce information overload, it does nothing to eliminate interruptions. The nature of instant messaging means that it demands immediate attention, as does a phone call (unless you let your voicemail box fill up as well), and not every issue requires that kind of response time. In addition, the virtue of email lies not only in its speed but its versatility. Rather than requiring users to access multiple applications to communicate, send files and conduct meetings, email provides a single starting point. So until we find a comparable replacement, it isn't going anywhere.

Of course, the real problem is not with the medium but the message. Thankfully, no one I know still sends those unfunny joke forwards and ridiculous chain letters that were so popular in the early days of AOL, so perhaps with a little social engineering we can get them to follow suit with the rest of these unnecessary messages. If not, I'm pretty sure I know of a Nigerian prince or two that would love to hear from them.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)